Dear Mr. Johnson,
I don’t expect you to read this right away. In fact, I would suggest that you wait and allow this letter to sit idle for few days until you are ready to hear what I have to say, perhaps on Sunday after church.
I should clarify; I truly and sincerely dislike you for the brutal murder of my brother Emmanuel N. Berry and his three sons, but I don’t harbor ill intent toward you, nor do I desire vengeance or retaliation. My intention in writing this letter is healing — plain and simple.
Mr. Johnson, I’m not sure if you’re even capable of finding yourself emotionally compromised. Nevertheless, I anticipate that this letter will undoubtedly elicit feelings of deep guilt and immobilizing shame, especially as a “pastor”.
Mr. Johnson, this letter isn’t about punishing you. I’m not interested in hurting you or inflicting pain, but engaging the content of this letter requires a preliminary journey of humility, honesty, and self-reflection. Knowing this, if you feel you have journeyed deep within, if you have found the courage to confront that inner darkness, and if you’re prepared to receive what I have to offer, then please, continue on.
In the midst of our civil war and on the night of my brother Emmanuel and his three boys’ brutal murder on your Caldwell Military Base, you held their lives and others in your hands. Although you could have never known the value of what you were holding on when the triggers were pulled, I did from all the way in Northern California and other did as well. And as difficult as it may seem, I think it’s important for you to know what those values were.
Emmanuel N. Berry. My brother and my hero.
I can’t quite describe how difficult it is that he is not here. Over the course of the past 25 plus years, I have been dragged through hell and back, but the one thing that has been a consistent source of consolation is our faith.
A theological imperative that stands at the fulcrum of the Christian faith speaks of the incarnation: the biblical narrative tells stories of a Benevolent Creator, willingly taking on the physical embodiment of pain and suffering to forge a new path for healing and restoration. It is in identifying with our pain that the Messiah navigated the complexities of humanity and still made a conscious decision to model compassion, mercy, and love, form the pillars of the Kingdom. This is exemplified in his greatest hour of distress. As Jesus hung on the cross, he looked upon his murderers and said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Moved by compassion, Jesus recognized the entanglement of physical malevolence and inescapable woundedness. And although he was well within his power to declare judgement and death, he advocated for mercy and forgiveness.
My brother was a diehard fan of perhaps the greatest football team in the history of the Republic of Liberia – Invincible Eleven (IE). He and Santos Maria were buddies. As a matter of fact, he ran all of Santos’ business operations in Liberia, including his sporting goods store at the intersection of Gurley and Benson Street. As a result of his deep love for IE, I too became extremely attached to our beloved football team.
My brother and my all time basketball Great, Jimmy McCritty were extremely close friends. As a matter of fact, they were housemates down the hill from the YMCA, in the Slipway community.
My brother was a good person with good intentions and compassion. He was always dependable, pleasant, agreeable, pleasurable, delightful, cheerful, sociable, extremely honest and he wouldn’t hurt anyone. Yet, he was brutally murdered.
“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Pain has been the abiding trait of humanity from time immemorial. Some people go through their entire lives avoiding and medicating pain. Other people, like my brother Emmanuel, choose to embrace it as a language of commonality and connection. I know this because it’s how we were raised. My brother allowed his deepest wound to transform into his greatest attribute: his abundant love for others.
Mr. Johnson, I don’t know you. I’ve never met you. But I don’t need to know you to know that the action of taking someone else’s life reflects deep, unbridled pain. And I’d imagine that at some point, that pain has amplified even more because you took my brother and his three boys lives. I acknowledge that pain.
Immediately upon hearing about the brutal murder of her husband and three boys, my sister-in-law disappeared and was never seen again; perhaps, the pain was too much to bear. My daddy went into deep depression and never recovered.
I share my brother’s pain with you because I can imagine something in his story might resonate with you — whether that’s rejection, neglect, abandonment, or a desire to belong. I must confess that I am no clinician, but as the former president of the Liberian Community of Northern California, I’ve lived and worked with people long enough to know that our childhood wounds shape us. They mold us; they form us. And when left unattended, those wounds fester, and we navigate the world projecting our pain onto others. Although there are times when I experience deep sorrow and grief at how my brother and his three boys died, I can stand confidently and say that I don’t think you’re innately evil. You are human. You are wounded, just like the rest of us. However, if you saw the world through my eyes, you would know that you were created to be so much more than your pain. And I believe, without a shadow of doubt, that your pain deserves healing and restoration. You deserve healing and restoration.
Mr. Johnson, as a member of the vestry at my beloved St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the scriptures instruct us to pray for our enemies, but you are not my enemy and my prayers are not motivated by pity. I pray for you like I prayed for that my beloved beloved brother and my nephews are perfectly resting in the house of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I stand in the gap for you, like I stood in the gap for my brother Emmanuel and his boys. I will fight for you, like I fought for my brother Emmanuel. I intercede for you — asking the Spirit of Peace to envelop you in a love that silences disillusion and declares that you are still worthy.
Prince Johnson, I forgive you.
I hope that one day you will be able to read and receive this. And I hope that one day, you will be able to forgive yourself.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Rufus S. Berry II, MBA