The Long Road To Forgiveness (The Kim Phuc Story)

Every so often, I find one of the “The I Believe” podcasts that is so compelling that I just have to pass it along to you. That happened yesterday, as I was driving along listening to an episode of the great NPR series.

What came up on the iPod was the incredible story of Kim Phuc.

You have seen a picture of Kim. It was when she was nine-years-old, and running down the road between Phnom Penh and Saigon. She is naked. Her clothes have been burned off by a napalm bomb. She is crying. She is, to a generation, simply “the girl in the photograph.”

She’s an adult now, living in Canada with children of her own, and her essay for “This I Believe” has the enticing title of “The Long Road to Forgiveness.”

I remember when I first saw “the picture.” It was in a book of photographs from Life Magazine that we had around the house. Kind of a “best of” photo-collection from their history.

I remember at the time finding it hard to imagine that the picture was real. Apparently, so did Richard Nixon.

My excuse was that I was a child at the time (in fact Kim and I must be within a year of the same age) and photos like that were my first introduction to the horrors of war. It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem conceivable that anyone would hurt innocent children like that. But not only did people hurt them, they hurt them with the assistance of people…our government. There is something about a single image like that can help shape your conscience, and stay vivid in your brain.

Here’s how she describes that moment in her essay:

“I saw an airplane getting lower and then four bombs falling down. I saw fire everywhere around me. Then I saw the fire over my body, especially on my left arm. My clothes had been burned off by fire.

I was 9 years old but I still remember my thoughts at that moment: I would be ugly and people would treat me in a different way.”

Kim had an incredibly rough life after the photo was taken. She was hospitalized for 14 months, and endured dozens of surgeries. When the photo became an international sensation, she went from obscurity to a living propaganda tool of the Vietnamese government. They used her and her terrible story for years for their political gain.

She describes this period in this way:

“The anger inside me was like a hatred as high as a mountain. I hated my life. I hated all people who were normal because I was not normal. I really wanted to die many times.”

Years later, abroad on a study leave, she and her husband defected from Vietnam and ended up on Canada, where they live to this day.

Kim claims it was a conversation to Christianity in 1982 that allowed her to do that most difficult of all things. In her essay, Kim says it this way:

“God helped me to learn to forgive — the most difficult of all lessons. It didn’t happen in a day and it wasn’t easy. But I finally got it.
Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed.”

In 1996, Kim was invited to a ceremony at the the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington. There, as she learned how “The Wall” had become a pilgrimage site for Americans still dealing with the war’s effect, she met one of the men most responsible for her plight: Captain John Plummer, an American who helped coordinate the air strikes on her village.

Yes, in a most powerful and moving moment, Kim was even able to forgive him. They remain friends to this day.

You can learn more about Kim by listening to her essay here.

Or, if this link goes dead, here is the NPR link.

I suppose Kim’s story strikes me as poignant and beautiful because of its power just on its own. But I suppose it also strikes me because this need to overcome hatred with love, anger with forgiveness, simply continues to grow in our time.

We are in the midst of a new war. There are dozens of Kims out there right now who will, for the foreseeable future be struggling, with their own mounds of hatred, “as high as a mountain.”

It’s that kind of hatred that leads to the modern terrorist, of course. And the violence that begets more violence simply increases unabated in our day. When I think of all the violence and anger running lose in society today, it truly frightens me. In fact, that is the only thing that frightens me about our world.

The solution to all of it, of course, is always before us. The different path –where love overcomes hate, peace overcomes war– is always choice we can make at any time.

But, that solution will always strike us as naive. Yet it is only naive if we fail to realize the hard work it takes, the “long road” that it is. Make no mistake: forgiveness, love, reconciliation is only a path for the truly strong.

So, it may sound naive, but it seems to me Kim Phuc speaks truth in the closing words of her essay. They are about her time, but they are also so terribly relevant to this time too:

“Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.”

If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can’t you?

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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