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A few weeks ago James Whitsett, an employee at the Holiday Inn Express here in Charleston, died suddenly of a heart attack. Ironically, he had a wonderful heart for people and a big, infectious smile. He often spoke of God’s goodness. Just from the number of mourners present and the moving testimonials given, James obviously impacted a lot of folks in a powerful way.

There is a reason for that and why his story needs to be re-told. You see, James received God’s forgiveness in such a tangible way that it radically changed his life.

From a large family in Huntington, James was a popular student and star basketball player at St. Joe. After high school, he got involved with drugs. On the night of Jan. 9, 1982, he was in a crazed, violent state. He viciously beat and robbed a young woman in Huntington. He got a life sentence for his crime.

For over 12 years, this young woman, Victoria Baker, who became a wife and mother, was tormented by her harrowing experience which caused her great fear, especially if she had to be away from her home at night. Victoria and her husband, Huntington attorney Don Baker, loathed James and wished the worst for him. They wrote letters to the parole board urging the members to never release him. On top of that, Victoria battled cancer for 10 years and had to endure multiple surgeries and radiation treatments.

Then, after years of treatment and a profound, spiritual experience, she was cancer free.

Grateful for her physical healing, yet acutely aware of the emotional damage she still carried, she determined that she could only get completely well by meeting her attacker.

Against her husband’s wishes, she insisted on visiting James, who was in a work release center in Charleston hoping to make parole. Victoria was extremely nervous and had no idea what she would say to James. To her surprise, the first words out of her mouth were to ask him to forgive her for how much she had hated him for so long. Incredulous that she was asking him for forgiveness, James broke down and said he was the one that needed forgiveness from her. The power of forgiveness was palpable and life changing, as James and the Bakers experienced healing on the spot.

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The story doesn’t end there. The Bakers wrote letters to the parole board in support of his request for parole. Further, she and her husband had James and his mother over for dinner periodically and over nearly 40 years James was close to the Bakers and their children until the day he died.

At a time in our country when we put down folks and are unforgiving because of political or religious views or because of a person’s nationality or the color of their skin, we can all benefit the story of Victoria and James.

Their story was written up in the Guideposts magazine many years ago. My hope is to forward this Guideposts story for distribution to our state prison population so those who have hurt others can seek forgiveness and see the power of forgiveness.

And I hope victims of terrible crimes can experience the healing this woman did by forgiving her assailant. Forgiving the really horrible hurts can only occur with God’s help, and even then, it is far from easy.

But to those of us who profess to be Christian, Jesus not only repeatedly preached about the need for forgiveness, He showed us in His weakest state, alone and unjustly suffering while hanging on a cross, with perhaps the most meaningful words of His ministry, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” I once read a quote that has stuck with me, “Forgiveness sets a prisoner free, only to discover the prisoner was me.”

Included in the moving testimonials given at James’ funeral were those from Victoria and Don Baker, each of whom expressed their deep love for him and how he had significantly changed their lives for the better.

J. Timothy DiPiero, of Charleston, is an attorney with DiPiero, Simmons, McGinley & Bastress.

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