Column: Portrait of Forgiveness

Portrait of Divine Forgiveness

Serendipity smiled on me last week in a local bookstore when I met Erin Prewitt for the first time. What began as a brief encounter lasted two hours and left me divinely changed.

I also was left feeling like I had in a manner spoken with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and other sages of compassion.1-forgive

Understand, this was less than 24 hours before sentencing would be handed down in a Ventura County courtroom for 24-year-old Shante Chappell who, while driving under the influence of marijuana and Xanax, struck and killed Erin’s 38-year-old husband Chris during a marathon training run on Victoria Avenue.

On an evening that might well have been filled with thoughts of vengeance, Erin was a portrait from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” specifically the famous line: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

The essay’s title is itself apropos because Erin told me she was certain she would receive criticism for her compassion towards the monumental error of gross vehicular manslaughter. No matter, her mindset was Lincolnesque: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

Despite a senseless act that made her a widow and left their 7-year-old daughter Isabella fatherless, Erin shared with me what she would tell the judge the next day – Chris, a beloved educator, would forgive Chappell and therefore she has.

While prosecutors sought a sentence of six years in state prison, Erin wished for shorter justice. Superior Court Judge Ryan Wright must have been moved by her entreaty for he handed down a low-term of four years.

From nearly the moment she received the tragic news of her husband’s death, Erin felt a need to grant forgiveness for many reasons.

Firstly, for her own healing, recognizing the wisdom of Nelson Mandela: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Also, by example, she wished to plant the rich fruit of strength in Isabella. Thus into action Erin has put Gandhi’s words: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Importantly, too, Erin felt a responsibility to set the tone for the rest of her family and friends as well as the community at large.

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it,” Mark Twain wrote. Erin Prewitt is a human violet, crushed by a heel of tragedy, yet already blooming again.

At times Erin spoke spiritually, so it was fitting we were in Mrs. Fig’s Bookworm in Camarillo because storeowner Connie Halpern says “Fig” stands for Faith In God. Faith, family and friends have been paramount through Erin’s mourning.

As I said earlier, meeting Erin affected me greatly. Eleven years ago my life was also impacted by a driver under the influence. While I blessedly survived the high-speed collision, I suffered permanent injury.

Too, my bitterness at the drunk driver had been permanent. Erin changed that. If she can forgive Chappell, how can I not do so a far lesser tragedy?

Erin’s gift to me is a gift to all. From her standard, how can we not forgive an estranged family member or alienated friend or even ourselves for a shortcoming?

If Erin could hug Chappell in courtroom and, as reported in The Star, tell her, “We forgive you, but it’s time for you to forgive yourself,” then surely the rest of us are capable of showing more compassion.

Lincoln one more time. During the Civil War he frequently received appeals for presidential pardons for soldiers who had been court-martialed and sentenced to die. These petitions were always accompanied by letters of support from influential people.

On one occasion, Lincoln received a single-page appeal from a soldier without any supporting documents. “What? Has this man no friends?” asked the president.

“No, sir,” said the adjutant. “Not one.”

“Then I will be his friend,” said Lincoln as he signed the pardon for the soldier.

Erin Prewitt seems a similarly divine friend.


Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”

Book Review: Team of Rivals

TeamRivalsCoverTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (944 pages). FLASH REVIEW: I have read more than a dozen books about Lincoln and the Civil War, visited Gettysburg twice, and hence put off reading “Team of Rivals” because I figured it couldn’t possibly offer much more or live up to its billing. I stand corrected. To my mind, “ToR” is the definitive book on Lincoln. When I got to the final page of this thick tome I was disappointed only in one way — that it was ONLY 944 pages long! I wanted more! RATING: 5 STARS out of 5.