This apology and forgiveness, spontaneous on both sides, struck a chord in the community of Evanston, Illinois, where both youths had been raised. The local newspaper ran a series of stories and marveled editorially at the extraordinary nature of "the emotional healing" the exchange of letters revealed. How, citizens wondered, had it all happened?
The reconciliation was, in fact, no accident. It occurred in large measure because of the sustained outreach by parishioners of the local Catholic church the Ramos family attended and members of the Evanston Bible church where the Youngs worshipped.
The murder was committed on June 17, 1996, on the border between Chicago and Evanston, a large, mostly middle-class suburb that has seen an increase in drugs and gang activity during the past 10 years.
Mario Ramos, a slightly built, shy, bespectacled youth, was standing with a group of his fellow Latin King gang members near a fruit store on the Chicago side of the border when a car containing two white and two black youths pulled up. The driver, Andrew Young, waited while his twin brother, Sam, entered the store to cash a check. Mario ran past the waiting car and reportedly flashed a gang sign. When the car's
occupants failed to respond appropriately, the Latin Kings felt insulted.
As the auto pulled away, Mario and an older companion gave chase on a bicycle - a chase that would have been futile if the car had not been stopped by a traffic light at a busy intersection two
blocks away. Mario dismounted, took a pistol supplied by his partner, ran up to the waiting car, and fired a single shot. It struck Andrew in the left arm, tore through his heart, and exited his right side. By the time Andrew's frantic companions drove him to a hospital, he was beyond help. Mario and his associates were chased down by police and charged with murder.
At St. Nicholas Church, the pastor, Father Robert Oldershaw, spoke at Sunday Mass about the incident. A terrible thing has happened, he said. Two families have been touched by tragedy. How do we as a parish respond?
His personal response was to begin visiting Mario, whom he found at first overwhelmed with remorse and self-pity. He only meant to wound the driver, Mario said, in order to prove himself a worthy Latin King. Oldershaw called together leaders of the St. Nicholas Mexican community, which had come as a group to the church several years before when their old parish was closed. A parish Hispanic council was formed, and for the first time, the parish, city officials, and local police
collaborated to better serve the special needs of Hispanic citizens.
Week after week Oldershaw updated parishioners about these developments, weaved the latest news into his homilies, urged parishioners to break barriers between Anglos and Hispanics, and asked for prayers for the two families affected by the tragedy. In particular, he urged people to write or visit Mario in prison, thus initiating an ongoing string of contacts between the churchgoing faithful and the self-confessed killer. Many wrote and several visited; two, in fact, went to see Mario almost weekly for an entire year while his case was continued in court. As months passed, the jail chaplain, Ron De Rose, reported a gradual change in the youth. "He was transformed, truly repentant," De Rose says. "We don't see that very often in here.... I think Mario's faith is genuine."
Oldershaw contacted the Youngs and asked if they wanted to talk. They were wary at first. Their own pastor, the Rev. Stephen McCorkle, had reached out to them, and church members had been bringing in food and easing them through the shock. But soon a kind of friendship developed between Andrew's parents and the Catholic pastor.
"We talked and talked," says Stephen Young, a piano technician whose face still reflects his deep anguish. "For a long time I'll admit I would have killed Mario," he says. "I was entangled in vengeance. I could not feel love in any way." Nevertheless, he attended one of Mario's court hearings and was introduced by Oldershaw to Mario's mother, who spoke little English. The two stricken parents sat beside each other on the courtroom bench for many minutes. They held hands and both simply wept.
In the months after the murder, Stephen turned his attention toward gun control. He became a leader in efforts to ban handguns or at least change the state laws that permit easy gun purchase. He organized marches and letter-writing campaigns to legislators.
Maurine Young, meanwhile, reflected on her own life. A former Catholic, she had been rescued from depression many years before by two evangelical women who helped her, she says, "to recommit my life to Jesus." Now she pondered what recommitment required of her in this awful circumstance. As the date of sentencing approached, she decided to take action. She wrote the letter, she says, because she had made a promise to the women who helped restore her faith that henceforth GOD "would be the King of my life, my Boss, Pilot, Leader, High Priest. He would run the show." She had scarcely mailed the letter when Mario's arrived at her