The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had an excellent piece last weekend on Billy Neal Moore. Moore has a prison ministry where he preaches the gospel of forgiveness. But he doesn’t do this as a well-intentioned pastor who has led a perfect life. He is, rather, a man who spent 16 years on death row for a murder he readily admits he committed.
Reporter Sheila M. Poole chronicled Moore’s journey through life. Moore’s father was sent to prison when he was four years old. Moore took on a lot of responsibility for his family through his teen years, but left home at age 17 when his father returned. He married, and joined the Army.
About 5 years later with his marriage in trouble and behind on his rent, he broke into the home of a 77 year old man, robbed him of $5,000 cash and killed him. He was both drunk and high at the time. But he also knew it was wrong. He confessed to the murder the next day, and sentenced to death at trial shortly thereafter, with an execution set for September 13, 1974.
Continuing to be consumed by guilt, he found the names and addresses of his victim’s relatives in his court documents. He wrote to them saying “I want you to know that I am truly sorry for all the pain and suffering that I have caused each one of you and if you can find it in your hearts to forgive me, I really would truly appreciate it. But if you don’t, I understand because I don’t forgive myself for the terrible suffering I have brought you all.”
A week later he received a response from the victim’s niece, Sara Stapleton Farmer, saying “Dear Billy, we are Christians and we forgive you and pray to God for your soul and hope for the best in your life.”
Thus began a relationship through letter writing that lasted for years, with the Stapleton family becoming advocates for Moore to receive clemency. Moore noted that it took six years of them doing “what real Christian people do” before he was able to forgive himself for the crime.
In 1990, Moore had his sentence commuted by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, noting the unusual nature of the Stapleton family arguing for his clemency. He was released from prison on parole in 1991, a free and forgiven man.
Moore is the primary focus of the story and his is an impressive one. Few that see death row will ever become a positive role model and a model example of rehabilitation. He continues to provide this story to those who remain behind bars, serving as an inspiration to those that they still have value. That they too are worthy of redemption and forgiveness should they ask for it.
The message is an appropriate one of Easter week – one of personal redemption and forgiveness granted even when the recipient does not feel worthy of it. Yet despite the fact that most of us will at times in our life be in a position of needing forgiveness, most will also not likely relate to Moore – a person who knew right from wrong but still managed to commit robbery and murder while using drugs and alcohol.
Yet, on some level, each of us will likely find us in the role of the Stapleton family. There will be those looking to us for personal forgiveness as we will look to others. Forgiveness is often difficult to ask for. It is even more difficult at times to grant.
Whether Christian or not, there is a message in here for each of us. No one ever got ahead by trying to get even. Sometimes you just need to let the past be the past and move on.
We cannot change past events, but each of us can change the future for ourselves and for others. Whether on the asking or receiving end, forgiveness is a tool that we need to use more often.