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.
“For those who have gone through something, A, they want to meet somebody that’s been able to go through it successfully, just to give them some hope that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that they’re in and that they’re going to be able to make it through as well, and, B, for those who are really kind of working through it, that maybe feel a little stuck, they just want to know, ‘How do I get unstuck? How do I move to that next level?’” Williams said. “And they perceive me as someone who did this, so they’re naturally just inclined to say, ‘How? Can we meet? (Can you) walk me through how to do this?’”
Williams accommodated those he could. His experiences caused him to think how he could help more people. In 2009, his mind turned back to a documentary about forgiveness he had filmed with Christopher Clark not long after the accident. He contacted Clark, who explained the documentary had never been completed and he was now producing “Mormon Messages” videos for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After talking over the project’s potential to help others, Williams and Clark decided to create a Mormon Messages video using some of the 2007 video with new footage. The church released “Forgiveness: My Burden Was Made Light” on July 28, 2010.
“It just seemed like the perfect way to put something (out),” said Williams, who was surprised to learn that people all over the world were viewing the video. After the video’s success, Williams received more requests to talk one-on-one with people who were struggling to forgive or move on from something in their lives. A combined desire to write a formal memoir for his children and to continue to help others led him to write “Let It Go: A True Story of Tragedy and Forgiveness.” Initially, Williams intended to self-publish and give copies away, but changed his mind after his friend Paul Cardall persuaded him to try publishing through Deseret Book.
“(Paul said that) this is a message that I could self-publish, but it probably wouldn’t reach the right audience,” said Williams, who was initially uncomfortable with putting a price on the book. “ At the same time what (Cardall) was talking about was really true. It just felt right.”
“Let It Go” went on sale at Deseret Book on July 30. The book describes in detail Willliams’ feelings and experiences after the accident and how he was able to forgive White, who is now 22, has been out of juvenile detention for a year and a half and is involved in educating youths on the consequences of underage drinking.
“I told him at the facility, and we’ve kept in contact since, that he has the opportunity to put this mistake in the past and think nothing more of it,” Williams said. “Everyone has this opportunity to put the past in the past and move on. I (still) remind Cameron of that. I hold no ill will against him. I’m a brother in this with him. I tell him that as often as I can. My expectation is that he marries a beautiful woman, has a family and has a wonderful life.”
For Williams, who has himself remarried, any grudge he was ever tempted to hold against White was over before it really began. It is a concept he worked hard to demonstrate in his book.
“When I looked at everything I’d written, all my journals and notes and stuff, there was a lot of information,” Williams said. “But I wanted the story to be impactful so I could kind of present it in a way that emotionally drew people in, so that they almost felt they were going through it as well.”
Williams said he also hopes people will ask themselves, “Could I do this?” and describes at length a principle he called “fore-giveness,” or being prepared to forgive others before an offense comes. The first time Williams practiced “fore-giveness,” he said, was during a conference talk in October 2005 when President Gordon B. Hinckley quoted a Deseret News column by Jay Evensen about the story of Victoria Ruvolo, a Long Island woman who forgave a teenager who threw a frozen turkey out a car window on the expressway that ended up smashing through Ruvolo's windshield and into her face.
“I sat there in that conference and I asked myself the question, ‘Could I do that? Am I the kind of person that could forgive like Victoria Ruvolo?’ And I didn’t know,” Williams said. “That was an incredibly powerful exercise to go through, to ‘fore-give’ people, to walk through life with that kind of attitude.”
The most important point in his book, according to Williams, is that “the Savior heals all. I think for those that don’t believe in the Savior, that aren’t Christian, they’ve got to believe in at least a power that’s greater than themselves. If they can believe that there is a power that is greater than themselves, that heals, then they can really get through anything.”
The key to tapping into the Savior’s strength and love for all men, Williams reiterated, is to relinquish the desire to choose who and when to forgive and give everything over to the Lord.
“When life presents a burden to you, whether it’s that of a loss or something you’re suffering or trying to work through, it can be a really horrendous, significant burden, but the initial reaction is to try and regain that sense of control that was lost,” Williams said. “But I think in that, too many people will start to look at the people that offended them and include them in that group of things they want to control. It’s a way of trying to find that empowerment within a life that suddenly is chaotic. So that’s a big part of the initial forgiveness. For me, it was being driven so very quickly to the point of realization that I am nothing. I can’t, I have no strength to heal, to move forward, and to carry anyone else’s burden.” The commitment to “let it go” changed everything for Williams.
“That’s what I was driven to in the car, is that very quickly, this realization that there’s no way I can take this burden, so the only way out is to give it all up and just trust in a power much greater than mine that he can heal me,” Williams said. “And when I made that commitment, that’s when it came, that’s when it immediately came. All of a sudden, as I write about (in the book), the world looked completely different. Even as I looked at my wife and my kids, suddenly they looked completely different than they did just seconds before. There was this immediate new perspective, a realization that I could be OK. One of the great blessings of forgiveness is it allows the tragedy to stop. It doesn’t need any more lives wasted.”
Forgiveness: My Burden Was Made Light
Forgiveness and the power of Jesus Christ enable a man to survive losing his wife and several children in a car accident and allow the offending driver to begin rebuilding his own life.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company