If you asked anyone who knew Laurie A. Coombs, they would tell you what an incredibly strong person she was — the kind of person who can make it through anything. As Coombs details in her new memoir, Letters from My Father’s Murderer: A Journey of Forgiveness (Kregel/June 27, 2015/ISBN: 978-0825442292/$14.99), that outward veneer of strength masked a crumbling interior. She talks more about her story in the interview below.
Audra Jennings: Why did you want to write Letters from My Father’s Murderer, which details such a tragic and painful part of your life?
Laurie Coombs: To be honest, I didn’t initially want to write this book. I wanted to share my story, but I knew writing it in a book would require me to bare all. I knew I’d have to share difficult things, and I didn’t want to. But greater than my resistance was my desire to see people experience freedom and redemption and healing as I had. I wanted God to be glorified for what He had done in and through my life.
I knew God was calling me to write this book. And I knew God well enough to know that if I answered that call I’d most assuredly see lives change as a result of the message He has given me. God allowed me to see something good could come out of the ashes of my past. I could play a small part in the grand story He has been unfolding since the beginning of time. I could participate in what He’s doing in the here and now for the good of many. And so, I chose to say yes, and of course I’m now completely on board.
AJ: Tell us about the significance of the few interactions you had with your father just prior to his murder.
LC: About one month before my dad died, he said to me, “Laurie, when I die, I want people to remember me for who I am. I don’t want anyone turning me into something I’m not.” The comment sort of stunned me at first. It came out of absolutely nowhere. My dad continued to tell me people only want to talk about the good parts of a person after they die. “But that’s not who they really are,” he said. “There are good parts and bad parts to every one of us.”
For many years, I didn’t understand why my dad said that to me – –obviously, neither one of us knew he was going to die – –but as I began to write this book, his words came to mind. I knew then, without a doubt, God had him speak those words to me more than a decade before I needed them to give me the freedom to share my story however God would lead.
AJ: You’re very honest in the book about the mistakes your father made and how that affected your teen years and even your choice to reject the faith you had been raised in. Was that difficult for you to do?
LC: Absolutely. I had to do a lot of thinking and praying about how to write what God wanted me to write in this book. But ultimately I knew God was calling me to truth. My dad was an amazing man. A wonderful father. I really was a daddy’s girl. But he wasn’t perfect. And neither am I. It’s my hope that I conveyed my imperfections throughout the book as well.
AJ: Almost immediately after learning about your father’s death, you say the hate for his killer began to fill your heart. How did that hatred affect you?
LC: My hatred affected just about everything I thought and did at first. Anger quite literally consumed me. But then after several months, I chose to lay aside my anger and my grief. I knew my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to live like that, so I deliberately chose to put the whole terrible thing behind me and move on.
I didn’t see the affects of anger on the surface after that, and I honestly thought I had worked through it. In reality, I had simply unintentionally buried it. For years, that anger festered in my heart and turned into bitterness without me even knowing it until the day God brought it to my attention nine years after the murder.
AJ: How did this experience change how you view the attitude toward violence in the media?
LC: Initially, I couldn’t do the things I did before the murder. I stopped watching TV, I turned off the news, I carefully screened movies to protect myself from seeing any type of violence, and of course, the rap music I once listened to was definitely out. Honestly, I just couldn’t take it. All around me, throughout most of our culture, I saw an unhealthy fascination with murder. Rappers glorifying it. Television shows depicting it to boost ratings. Movies using it to entice audiences. Kids running around, saying, “I’m going to kill you!” like it’s no big thing. We have murder-mystery dinner parties. Murder-mystery board games. True crime TV shows. We’re glorifying it. Sensationalizing it. Because, after all, murder sells, right?
Seeing murder elevated to entertainment sickened me, to be honest. I just wanted to scream, “This is not a game, people!” Murder is real. Murder is horrific. It is not entertainment. It is not something we should have this unhealthy fascination with. It’s murder. Real people exist behind each and every murder. Real victims. Real families left behind. Murder is not a game. And it is certainly not something to be glorified.
AJ: What was it like for you to return to college and complete your daily classes and tasks after such a life-altering event?
LC: Oh, that was hard. Nothing was the same after the murder. It all seemed pointless. The way I viewed just about everything had changed. My entire life had shifted in one moment, yet I knew I had to move on. I didn’t want to. I wanted to escape my life and pretend like nothing had happened. But I knew I couldn’t just stop doing life. I had to press on. I didn’t see any other choice, so I just sort of did it.
AJ: Before sentencing at trial, what did you tell the jury on the day you stood in the courtroom and came face-to-face with your father’s killer?
LC: I told them about my dad. I tried to make my dad real to them. And then I left them with a challenge. I said,
“Until the day of Anthony’s death, we will have to deal with the fact that there is a man out there who took our dad’s life. How long this murderer will spend in prison is left up to you, and we encourage you to help our family in our pursuit of justice.
This tragedy, which has affected all of our lives, is not over. This will be something we must live with for the rest of our lives; nonetheless, only when justice is served will we be able to move on with our lives and have closure.
Leonardo da Vinci once said, ‘He who does not punish evil commends it to be done. Justice requires power, insight, and will. . . .’ I challenge you to uphold justice and sentence Anthony to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
AJ: You began to build a lovely life with your family in the years following the trial, and appeared very strong. What happened that finally brought you to the point where you turned to the Lord?
LC: I fell apart. I did. God presented me with something I couldn’t fix. It was anxiety and depression that finally brought me to my knees, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t fix myself. I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak, as I had many times before. I had fallen into such an incredibly dark place, and I was scared. I tried everything the world tells you to do in a situation like that, but nothing worked. As a last resort, I found my way to church.
AJ: What were some of the little daily miracles and occurrences that drew you to Jesus when you started seeking Him?
LC: My family and I willingly walked through those church doors with an incredible sense of desperation. God was truly my last hope, but even though I desperately wanted Him to be the answer, I was highly skeptical He would be. You see, I didn’t believe in God. I was a skeptic — a scoffer, even. At the time, I didn’t think proof of God’s existence was even possible, and I certainly didn’t want to be one of those “blind faith suckers.” But as I sat there listening to the pastor preach, it was as if I was the only one in the room. The message spoke to where I was in that exact moment, and I thought, The sheer probability of that alone is crazy.
The concept of God speaking to man was foreign to me, but having that pastor preach a message to my inner thoughts got my attention. It was enough to draw me back the next week and the week after that and the one after that, and each time I fully expected the God-thing to be a fluke. But it wasn’t. Over and over again, God showed Himself to me in many ways, and I was given the proof I needed to believe.
AJ: What made you decide to begin corresponding with your father’s killer? What did you hope would come from it?
LC: God had freed me from the anxiety and depression after coming to Jesus, but then He began to show me I was irritable pretty much all the time. It was ugly, and quite honestly, I didn’t like myself very much. I began to pray for God to show me why I was like this. Why can’t I just be nice? I wondered. And then He showed me that the root of my irritability was anger, which had ultimately turned into bitterness.
I prayed, asking God to remove the bitterness in my heart, and that’s when I heard His gentle whisper tell me, “It’s time to forgive.” But then He took it a step further. “Love your enemy,” He said. God’s call to forgive and love my enemy resulted in the correspondence between the man who murdered my dad and me. Initially, I wasn’t sure what would come out of our interaction, but I did know where God was taking me. I knew He was leading me toward forgiveness and healing. I didn’t know what that journey would look like along the way, but I did know wherever I ended up would be a good place.
AJ: Tell us about the moment you were finally able to forgive.
LC: Forgiveness came when I least expected it. My correspondence with the man who murdered my dad had gotten heated. He was blame-shifting and justifying, and I was obviously not OK with that. All I wanted to do was rebuke him — I almost did — but instead, God said to me, “Laurie, leave him to me. Now forgive.” And I did. But it wasn’t of me. If I had my way, I would have met all the blame-shifting and lies with a rebuke. Instead God called and enabled me to give that which I had already been given. He called me to give grace and love and forgiveness.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and he was right. The moment I extended grace and love and forgiveness, I began to see the man who murdered my dad change before my eyes.
AJ: Your father’s killer wrote, “Your testimony may have saved a life,” in one of his letters. What did he mean by that?
LC: The man who murdered my dad chose to share what God had done through our journey during a church service with his fellow inmates. He shared an article I had written. He told them nothing is unforgivable. He encouraged them to place God in the center of their most broken relationship and pray. Then he told them I had encouraged him to live his life to the glory of God. I had told him that just because he was in prison doesn’t mean he had wasted his life. I challenged him not to allow his life, nor my dad’s death, to be in vain. The men were crying as he spoke, and after he shared a man came up to him to tell him he had been planning to murder a man when released from prison. He said because of this testimony, he decided to pray and forgive instead. I was stunned. God had used my dad’s death possibly to save another life. It was incredible.
AJ: You prayed a prayer at the beginning of your forgiveness journey. Tell us about that and how it was answered.
LC: At the beginning of this whole thing, the only way I knew how to love my enemy was to pray for him — so I did. I prayed good things for him, though it was counterintuitive to everything I was feeling. I prayed God would change him. I prayed God would heal him. I prayed God would bring him to complete repentance. And I even prayed he would be transformed by the gospel to the extent that he would be motivated to live to the glory of God in prison, bringing many prisoners to know and serve Jesus. It was a pipe-dream prayer, I thought. I mean, I knew God could do it, but I honestly didn’t think He would. But then He did.
After I forgave, God brought him to his knees. All the blame-shifting, all the justification stopped. He began taking complete responsibility for what he had done, and he was repentant. Ever since that time, I have witnessed this man share the gospel of Jesus Christ subtly yet powerfully with his fellow inmates. Lives are changing in there. He truly is living to the glory of God in that prison.
AJ: What have you learned from your interaction with him?
LC: Oh boy. A lot. More than I can ever say, really. God used this chapter of my life to teach me just about every aspect of the gospel. I learned what it looks like to follow Jesus. I learned more about who God is. I learned how to let go of control. I learned to press through obstacles. I learned how to calm my fears. I learned to be in complete reliance upon Jesus. I learned how to wait on the Lord. I learned about sin and judgment. I learned I am no better than any other, and my sins are no better than those of the man who murdered my dad. I learned true forgiveness is only accomplished by the grace of God. I learned the Christian life is not a life of passivity. I learned how to lay down my biases and seek God’s perspective. I learned forgiveness frees us from a victim mentality. I learned God is a God of the impossible — and so much more. Now I certainly don’t do all these things perfectly, but I sure did learn a lot through my journey of forgiveness.
AJ: What is his status today? Do you maintain regular contact with him?
LC: I do still have contact with him. It’s still ridiculously crazy to me that things have turned out the way they have. God has put a man who was once my enemy in my life. The man I once hated is now someone who works alongside me in my calling. The message he shares in there is the same one I share out here, so we do still write every now and again — but now our letters are centered around how God would have us use our story.
AJ: Why do people often feel like forgiving someone means that person “got away” with the wrong they committed?
LC: I think a lot of people mistakenly think forgiving someone is saying what they did was OK, but it’s not. What that person did will never be OK. God does not take sin lightly, and neither should we. But God does call us to forgive. Forgiveness is not letting the person off the hook. It’s giving that person to God. It’s stepping down from the judgment seat, allowing God to take His rightful place as judge. God does not take sin lightly. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Justice will be served. Our sins will be paid for one way or another, either by Jesus on the cross or by us.
AJ: What is at the heart of the message you share in your book?
LC: Hope is at the heart of my message. God truly has worked all things for good in my life. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” The first part of Genesis 50:20 says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” God brings good out of evil. Love out of hate. Peace out of despair. I believe it is His desire to do this for every one of us. You see, our pain won’t be wasted. We don’t have to sit in it. If we bring our pain, past and present, to God, He will redeem it.
AJ: What do you mean when you say your “pain won’t be wasted”?
LC: We all have wounds. Every one of us. My pain is no more valid than yours. I believe pain is pain, regardless of its cause. But here’s the thing: Jesus came that we might have life. Life to the full. He came to bind the brokenhearted. To proclaim freedom to the captives. To release prisoners from their darkness. To comfort all who mourn. To bestow a crown of beauty instead of ashes. In short, He came to redeem. To make us new.
Jesus once said we will have troubles in this life, “But,” He said, “take heart for I have overcome the world.” Troubles will come, pain will be felt, but our troubles and pain are not without purpose. God uses everything. Nothing goes to waste. If He allows something to take place, it is because He has a plan for it. There is absolutely nothing we can endure that won’t be used by God.
AJ: There are people who believe they will never be able to forgive people who have hurt them. What would you say to them?
LC: I would tell them they’re right. They can’t forgive the person who hurt them on their own. I had tried to will myself into a place of forgiveness and healing for more than a decade, only to fall to bitterness and anxiety and depression. Until we come to God for help, until we lay ourselves down before Him and are willing to do whatever it takes to forgive, we won’t be able to do it. True forgiveness is only possible by the grace of God.
AJ: You chose to begin Letters from My Father’s Murderer with Romans 13:12, which says: “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Tell us about the significance of that Scripture to you.
LC: I was in such darkness before I came to Jesus, and as I came to faith, it honestly felt like I had been plucked out of a deep dark pit. The light of God shone in my life, and I felt alive, truly alive, for the first time in my life. Darkness flees in the presence of light, and to me, Romans 13:12 is a picture of salvation. It’s a picture of what happened to me and what I hope happens to every one of us.
After coming to faith and experiencing all I did throughout my correspondence with the man who murdered my dad, I finally felt free. The darkness of my past was in the past. I had cast off my sin and sins others committed against me and had put on the armor of light, which is Christ.
Learn more about Laurie Coombs and Letters From My Father’s Murderer at www.lauriecoombs.org and on Facebook (lauriecoombs), Twitter (lauriecoombs) and Pinterest (laurieacoombs).