Chris Williams made a decision as he stared out his shattered windshield at the overturned car, fully and painfully aware that his wife, their unborn son, 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter were dead.
He decided to forgive the driver who caused the accident.
On Feb. 9, 2007, the Williams family was on their way home from a night out when 17-year-old Cameron White, driving from the other direction, slammed into the side of their car. It happened too fast for Williams, who was driving, to get out of the way. White would later plead guilty to four counts of second-degree felony automobile homicide (charges of driving under the influence of alcohol and leaving the scene of an injury accident were dropped). But before Williams even knew the teen’s name or the circumstances, he knew he had to “let it (the act) go.”
“As a disciple of Christ, I had no other choice,” Williams, who was then serving as bishop of the LDS Crystal Heights Ward, Salt Lake Highland Stake, told the LDS Church News two days after the accident.
At the time, Williams did not realize the impact his decision would have on the community. In the years since, his story has become a sermon on healing and forgiveness. Williams has endeavored to help members of his ward and stake congregations, family members and even people he didn’t know to heal from this and other personal tragedies. He’s given talks, was featured in a Mormon Messages video and has now written a book.
After the accident, Williams wrote a lot of journal entries and notes about the crash, partly because he needed a way to make sense of the powerful emotions he was feeling and partly because of his obligation as bishop to speak to his ward about the crash and help them heal. His first opportunity to relate all he had learned about himself and the power of the Atonement during the grieving process, he remembers, was in a stake conference in September 2007.
“The No. 1 question I get is how was I able to do that (forgive and let go)?” Williams said in an interview with the Deseret News. “ That’s really why I finally decided I need to just pull all of this (my notes) together and write it out, because it’s a much more personal view to my soul than I’m able to communicate with words. I really have to let people look in and see that there was an enabling power that allowed me to do that which I couldn’t do for myself, and so it really wasn’t about how do I get the power to do this, it was about how do I allow a much greater power than me to help move me forward. And that’s an act of faith, and that’s an act of trust, and I think that’s really the core of what people are struggling with, is they don’t want to give up on the control.”
During a press conference and interviews he gave shortly after the crash, Williams often spoke about his decision to forgive and let go of what could have been a miserable burden of entwined grief, righteous anger or even resentment, choosing instead to separate his feelings about the deaths of his family members from the teenager in the other driver’s seat. In turn, many of the news articles written about the tragedy included Williams’ call for mercy and love, including an invitation to “extend a single act of kindness, a token of mercy or an expression of forgiveness by Valentine’s Day and then, if you feel to so do, write that experience down and share it with my two surviving boys by sending it to the address that the radio and TV outlets will provide.”
Williams received hundreds of letters and emails about services rendered, from sending cookies to a neighbor to vowing a renewed commitment to forgive an offense from a spouse.
After the stake conference talk, he began receiving requests to speak at firesides and youth conferences. He also received questions from people looking for guidance on how to forgive an offense or let go of a hurt.
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