One of the most remarkable stories of forgiveness had its sad beginning 25 years ago this month, so we reached out to the California woman whose inspiring daughter sacrificed her life to create positive change for a beautiful yet brutal country, leading her parents to do the same.
Amy Biehl was a bright, determined Stanford graduate who ventured to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship to work in the anti-apartheid movement during its explosive final months before Mandela would become president.
She worked alongside her black comrades to register voters, and she longed to address the poverty of their squalid townships, believing that economic change was critical for any meaningful transformation. She was giving two of them a ride home when the blue-eyed blonde became a target for four angry youths whod just left a rally where militants were calling for the death of privileged white settlers.
Despite the desperate objections of her ANC colleagues that she was a comrade, Amy was stoned and stabbed to death on a road in Guguletu township on the very corner that her parents would soon be calling The Spot of Hope.
Peter and Linda Biehl left their gated community in wealthy Orange County, motivated and haunted by reading Amys diaries. They flew to Cape Town and toured the townships where Amy worked and talked with her friends about the unemployment problem. Peter was a businessman, and with money pouring in to honor their daughters noble cause, they began to organize one development project after anotherwelding, sewing, a print shop, a bakery, a construction company, sports facilities, and adult literacy programs.
But the most startling development of all was the loving relationship that developed between Amys parents and her killers.
People say, well I couldnt get together with people that harmed my loved one, but forgiveness is really about liberating yourselfletting go, so you can be free of hate and bitterness. Its really a one-way street that doesnt need the other person to do anything Reconciliation is a different step. Its really hard work.
Their reconciliation process began when they talked with Bishop Desmond Tutu, who was setting up the countrys Truth and Reconciliation Commission and would win the Nobel Peace Prize for it. The Biehls knew that amnesty would be granted to the young men whose crimes were politically motivated, and they wanted to participate to honor the countrys healing process.
Photo copyright Johanna Baldwin, Easy (left) and Ntobeko (right) with Linda and Peter in1999
We did not expect to have a relationship with them, but two of the young men, after they were released from prison, saw that things hadnt changed in their community, and they wanted to help. They had the courage to come to us, to our foundation, which was bringing jobs to young peopleand we admired that, Linda Biehl told Good News Network by telephone from Cape Town before Saturdays anniversary celebrations began. They were considered by some of their former comrades to be selling out to the all-American dollar.
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Easy Nofomela and Ntobeko Peni began working for the foundation. Easy still works there today. Ntobeko (pronounced, Tobecko) gleaned every bit of business wisdom from Peter and became a successful entrepreneur who started a laundromat, driving service, and more.
As time went on we became very close, she continued. Im very proud of Easy and Ntobeko. They traveled to America with me to speak at conferences and its been very positive. That is Amys gift to all of usshe brought us all together.
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I dont know how they found it in their hearts to forgive us, but I can tell you that it has greatly enriched my life, Ntobeko told a reporter in 2001. I will never forget the kindness they have shown me when they had every reason to hate me.
They call me Makulu, Linda laughed, explaining it means grandmother. Young people here were really looking for parenting during the struggle. They kind of adopted us into their villageit was pretty amazing.
Perhaps the most touching moment for Linda, whose husband died in 2002, was the time Ntobeko asked her to wear a traditional Xhosa outfit to his wedding.
He never really knew his mother so when he asked me to be that person, I realized he was really asking me to be his family. Someone did up my blonde hair in little puffs, and it was very joyful, she recalled fondly.
Amy Biehl Foundation USA, Facebook Page
Many other lives were touched by the Biehlss selfless dedication. Victor West, the ambulance driver who attended Amy had a very hard time dealing with her death because people accused him of not saving her. It lead to substance abuse problems until he finally told mental health officials that he would like to meet her parents.
They had dinner with him, and asked what they could do to help. Victor said he taught first aid and maybe he could do that for the Foundation. So they launched a program of teaching CPR and first aid to thousands of township residents in schools, prisons and community groupsand Victor never touched alcohol since that day.
It grew so much that he and his wife then started their own program called Bounce Back, says Linda. That was our hope, that people would find their own skills and confidence and go out and do these things on their own. As I look back, that is our real success story.
Friends and colleagues gathered on August 25 in the rain and cold, with Linda and members of the community, to sing songs and mark the quarter-century since Amys death. They gathered on the road where the U.S. State Department had placed a large marker, describing her as a tireless human rights activist.
As much as it was a bad thing that happened, everyone drives by it every day. My husband and I drove by it for years, explained Linda. We realized that its a part of the community and we wanted to not make it a bad or sad place, and thought, Lets make it a place of hope.
Most certainly, there would have been no hope without forgiveness: We were raised in a Congregational Church when Peter and I were growing up in Illinois, and he taught Christian ethics to junior high kids. If people are really living their Christian valuesor their Muslim values or Jewish valuesthere is always the element of forgiveness, but often people arent able to live up to that value.
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Its one of the things that was important to us, that we not be hypocritical; it was important that we dont say one thing and do something else. It was important to try to do what we believe, and act out in a positive way.
Even though Linda doesnt run the foundation anymore and she spends most of her time in California and Florida with her children and their families, she still travels and gives speechesand enjoys coming back to South Africa. It is the place where Amy feels most alive to her.
I still get recognized around town by a lot of the Township folks, which is kind of fun. To hear, Oh, youre back its heartwarming.
You can donate to the Amy Biehl Foundation and follow them on Facebook. (Featured photo: copyrightJohanna Baldwin,2002, used with permission)
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