ASSAULT VICTIM, WIFE SHARE JOURNEY TO FORGIVENESS
Some people think Chuck and Auburn Sandstrom are "saintly," Chuck Sandstrom says, for forgiving the man who assaulted him in 2009, leaving the former pastor and civic leader with a severe traumatic brain injury.
"My wife and I are not abnormally good," said Sandstrom Nov. 20 at a Bluffton University Forum. "But we know the path of forgiveness can take ordinary people like us on an extraordinary journey."
He and his wife recounted that journey, which has extended to an ongoing correspondence with the imprisoned assailant and helping his young son.
Chuck Sandstrom first encountered Michael Ayers on a summer day in 2009 when Sandstrom was having an unregistered car towed from a rental property that he and Auburn owned in Akron, Ohio. "He was drunk and angry," recalled Sandstrom, whose attacker’s sister rented from the Sandstroms.
Police were called, but they, the tow truck and Ayers had all left the scene, Auburn Sandstrom said, before Ayers returned and punched Sandstrom in the face, sending his head into a brick wall with the force of a high-speed car crash.
His nose broken and two front teeth knocked out, Sandstrom almost choked on his own blood and lapsed into a coma for six weeks.
"We lost what many would call ‘everything,’" including employment—he was executive director of the Barberton, Ohio, Community Foundation—property and social standing, he said. "My free-spirited wife became a 24-hour-a-day caregiver."
Adding that they had become "outsiders to the life we had known," Sandstrom said "our hearts were broken wide open with need of God."
At the same time, though, he and Auburn realized Ayers and his family were also suffering. "They, too, had their lives changed overnight," he pointed out, saying that Ayers went into hiding after the assault and was drinking heavily, while members of his family were being shunned at school and work.
The Sandstroms also learned that Ayers cared and provided for his children—a son, Michael Jr., who was behaving badly and failing third grade, and a 4-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with a serious illness.
Ultimately in court, the couple agreed that seeing Ayers sentenced, though necessary, wouldn’t be healing, Chuck Sandstrom said. The best thing, instead, would be reaching out to his family, they thought. "Who among us has not been harmed by the actions of another?" he asked.
One Sunday, he related, Ayers’ "significant other" came with their younger child to the Sandstroms’ church, where she read a "heartfelt" letter of apology from the assailant to his victim, who was preaching that day. Moved by what they considered a sincere apology, the Sandstroms embraced her and the children and began viewing them increasingly as family, Chuck Sandstrom said.
They started helping Michael Jr. in early 2011. At their first meeting, the boy asked Sandstrom—whom he now calls "Dr. Chuck"—if he was the man helping his dad. When he also asked why his dad was in prison, they referred him to Michael Sr., and the boy now knows it’s because his father hurt someone, although he doesn’t know whom, Sandstrom said.
He added that Michael Jr. has made a turnaround in school, where his teachers are pleased with his progress.
Their outreach has been "unbelievable" to Ayers, who has likened the "strange feeling" it gave him to "love like he had never felt before," Chuck Sandstrom said. He noted that Ayers has gained religious faith and gotten help with his alcoholism in prison, and, in regular letters to the Sandstroms, describes his progress and thanks them for helping his son.
"We would like to see Michael get back to being a good, providing father for his kids"—and to speak, Sandstrom continued, alongside his wife and him at some point. They’re often invited to speak about their experience, he said, and he remains involved in pastoral work as well, while Auburn teaches writing at the University of Akron. They are also developing an entrepreneurial project aimed at helping ex-offenders.
Sandstrom said he is still progressing physically, although some damage will be permanent. He works out five days a week, swims, plays golf, drives and, last summer, ran in his first 5K race.
"Most people see my injury as a tragedy," said Sandstrom, who holds a doctorate in policy and administration studies from the University of Pittsburgh and was also an executive fundraiser and consultant in the years before the assault. "For my wife and me, it has created an opportunity to love more deeply."
Auburn said they are too grateful for the life and love they have to harbor hateful feelings toward another person is who hurting, too. While their lives were "leveled" by the experience, it also gave them a chance to recreate themselves, and on their own terms, she noted.
People assume their forgiveness must be the result of a long process, if not particular goodness on their part, added Auburn, who read an essay describing her journey in the aftermath of the attack. The truth is, she said, that "extending love heals us and gives us a life we can enjoy."
More information about the Sandstroms is available at www.chucksandstrom.com and on the blog, www.chuckscircleoflove.com
Bluffton public relations, 11/26/12