For his soon-to-be released documentary “about the power of forgiveness to end gun violence,” Garrard McClendon ’88 interviewed the families of 22 murder victims— starting with his own.
by Steve Charles
Clouds are hunkering down on Chicago so low you can’t see above the first story of anything. Familiar landmarks erased by the mist.
Lake Michigan is just a notion to our right, then left, as Siri, our “intelligent digital personal assistant,” keeps us circling concrete pillars just off Lake Shore Drive, insisting they are Garrard McClendon’s apartment building.
We call Garrard and he guides us in. Turns out we’ve been on the right street, wrong level. One street that’s really a stack of two? Siri’s still trying to figure that one out.
Garrard welcomes us at the door of the 27th-floor condo he shares with his wife, Quanica. The view from here, he says, is usually stunning. Today it looks more like we’re living in those clouds, but there’s a palpable sense of purpose here. Video editing software is open to interviews on the computer in the home office. News clippings, letters, and photos are spread out on the living room table for us to see. We’ve got about a half hour before we’re scheduled to follow our host to the Illinois Media School and meet students who may help him complete his latest project.
Garrard is finishing Forgiving Cain, a documentary about using the power of forgiveness to end gun violence. During the past three years the Chicago State University professor and Emmy-winning TV host has traveled across the country to interview 22 families who lost a son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, or father to murder.
There’s Blair Holt, who stepped in front of several girls to protect them after a man boarded a Chicago Transit Authority bus and started shooting.
Frankie Valencia, a 21-year-old DePaul University honor student, was killed by a gang member at a 2009 Halloween party in Humboldt Park.
At the heart of the film, though, are Garrard’s parents, Ruby and Milton McClendon. They were murdered on Oct. 19, 2009.
Garrard shows us the headlines.
“I think of these as windows to what should not be happening,” he says.
He described their murder in Hammond, IN, to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“Two innocent God-fearing parents, married for 54 years, neighborhood people who always took care of their block and their community. Two teenagers who had recently become gang members decided to rob them. They got $70 and some jewelry, killed my parents, stole their Cadillac and went on a joy ride.”
Ruby and Milton McClendon were shot to death. Milton had also been beaten. Their bodies were dumped in a nearby nature preserve.
There’s a hat box full of letters of condolence, including one from President Obama.
And an 8 x 10 portrait of his parents.
Many of the news stories focus on an unexpected decision Garrard made only minutes after he heard about the brutal murder of his parents as he was preparing to go on the air as host of Garrard McClendon Live.
He chose to forgive the killers.
“Reo Thompson and Gregory Brooks Jr. were the two young men, 17- and 18-years old, who killed my parents. I forgave them the day I found out they did it.”
Garrard is speaking to a group of about 20 students at the Illinois Media School, spreading the word about Forgiving Cain, hoping to recruit an intern or two. He’s telling them why he’s making the film, which means he has to tell, once again, the story of his parents’ murder, the trial, his choice.
The fog was beginning to lift during our three-block walk here from the McClendons’ condo. At least you could see the El train, the breakwater on the lake. The TV screen at the school shows continuing coverage of a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, FL. Most of the victims are students one or two years younger than those Garrard’s talking to. The shooter has been arrested.
“Did I want them in prison? Of course! Forgiveness has nothing to do with punishment. People get that twisted.”
“Yup,” a young man says. Others nod their heads.
“Forgiveness isn’t for the perpetrator. Forgiveness is for yourself. Because if I don’t forgive, I can’t wake up tomorrow morning and do what I need to do. That’s what it’s about.”
He talks about the families he interviewed, how most of them also forgave the killers of their loved ones, how he intends to use the power of forgiveness against the violence that surrounds them. He says he hopes they’ll consider working with him on that.
Several students stop him at the door when he finishes. Most just say “thank you.”
But a young woman with cornrows and a beige backpack tears up. She’s angry about the crime in Chicago—a cop was killed only blocks from here earlier this week. She says no one is doing anything about the guns, the violence. Garrard leans in, listens, then talks quietly to her. The conversation ends with a smile, the young woman laughing the way we sometimes do coming out of an emotional moment.
Another young woman in a gray T-shirt and jeans shakes his hand: “You found beauty in your pain, and you have turned that into power.”
we’re eating lunch in a booth at the Mid-America Club on the 80th floor of the Aon Center, where Garrard filmed many of the interviews for Forgiving Cain. Our ears popped on the elevator ride up. The sky is clearing from above, too; we can see the top of the John Hancock building like a two-towered island in the mist.
“The decision to forgive was just so surreal when it happened,” Garrard says. “That was one thing the young lady asked today at the school. She was like, ‘How did you do it so quickly?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ You can call it God, or the Creator, or providence, or the universe—I have no idea. But I knew at that moment I had to forgive or else I would live my life in agony from then on.
“But it still hurts. Every day I think about what happened. That first year I was in a fog. I forgave instantly, but it took time for me to realize that this was the only thing that’s going to get my family through this horrible event.
“There were some family members who were talking vengeance. We had to kind of call off the dogs, say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want any more violence from this. We have to confront this hate with love.’”
Accustomed as he was to the media spotlight then, the intensity still got to him.
“Thank God I had my brothers.
When one of us couldn’t talk, one of the others would step in. And there were some days when my wife would say we weren’t doing any media that day. So that helped too. Because she’s been through it. Her brother Bobby was murdered.”
Garrard recalls his unexpected reaction when another story took the front page.
“When the police leave, the funeral is over, the flowers are gone, and the newspapers and the TV stations stop showing up, families get real lonely. Man, that’s hard. Murder causes chaos in the universe. A parent is murdered, the financial state of the family becomes chaotic. A child is murdered, and you’ve been saving up their college fund. Now that fund, something beautiful, is something that’s haunting you.
“We get at that a little in the film. What do the survivors have to do when someone is killed?”
That work, added to his daily routine, distracted him from some of the sorrow he’d feel much later.
“I’m a workaholic. And so it took a few years for me to actually grieve. Once we got back on air, it was the daily hustle again. What’s the next news story? Gotta get two guests tonight! And the cycle repeats and the cycle repeats.
“But when my wife and I took vacations, that’s when it would hit me.
“Diary writing helped a lot. But the biggest catharsis might have been doing the interviews for this film. To hear the stories—and the majority of them were a mirror image of my own—aw, man, that was cleansing.
“Every interview helped me realize I’m not the only one in this.”
We’re entering the ABC Studios on State Street, where Oprah had her first show, and everyone here seems to know Garrard. In fact, it’s been hard to walk for more than a block without him stopping to shake hands and talk with someone.
He’s keenly aware that being a local celebrity gave him an advantage that most families of murder victims don’t have.
“If I’m not a CLTV host, do I get a front page? No. That’s part of the mission and vision of the film. To give those people a voice.”
Last November he appeared on Windy City Live, the area’s top-rated local talk show, to promote the film. Today’s appearance on the show is lighter fare—a segment called “Host Chat,” for which he joins co-hosts Vale Warner and Ryan Chiaverini and “resident foodie” Ji Suk Yi for “unscripted, unedited conversation.” The co-hosts stop by the green room before the show and greet him like an old friend.
A few minutes before he goes on, he gets quiet. Deep breath, eyes focused on something far away, then closed as if in prayer.
The announcer calls out his name and he’s on camera for 20 minutes with two breaks. The banter is lively, co-hosts laughing loud and often. Garrard is energetic, gregarious, and quick-witted, has the audience behind him. He kills it, as we say.
Garrard is at the computer in his home office showing us drone footage of the nature preserve where his parents’ bodies were found. He says seeing that place again brings the murders home like nothing else.
“My parents did not die in vain. I think this film is going to wake some folks up! I think that Forgiving Cain will lead some people who haven’t forgiven to forgive. I think it will also heighten people’s awareness of how accessible guns are. Because every person was killed by someone who had a firearm. And most of them were illegal or stolen.
“My wife is so angry at the gun laws in this country. She’s like, ‘How can other industrialized nations ban assault weapons, and we can’t do it here?’ She’s like, ‘What’s next? You go to Walmart and you can buy hand grenades?”
Forgiving Cain got its start three years ago when Garrard put out a call in the Chicago area for anyone “wanting to share their grief on film.
“The emails came in, the phone rang off the hook,” he says. “We did the first 11 interviews, then it grew from there. People would call—‘My baby got killed seven years ago: Can Garrard interview me?’ We finally had to cut it off at 22.
“These are stories that have to be told. They will increase awareness. They will help people deal with grief.
“But the most important goal is to show how precious lives are. To ask the question: What is a human life worth? Do we value human life?
“We look past each other. We don’t say hello. We see a certain gender, a skin color, an ethnicity, and we assume the stereotype.
“But when you hear a mother talk about her son—a great bass player, killed on his way to church. Hear her say, ‘I’ll never get to watch my son get married.’ You realize how important each of us is simply as a human being.”
He plays an interview of another mother who lost her son. She’s wearing a pin on her jacket with her boy’s face on it.
“I kept thinking, He’ll live. Doctors tell us he’s fighting, he’s fighting. I said ‘God, if you spare my son, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’ I wanted it to be me, not him. And when the doctor comes out and says he didn’t make it, I say, ‘Come on, he didn’t make it? He didn’t make it? He’s all I have.’”
We’ve said our goodbyes to Garrard and Quanica and we’re driving south on Lake Shore Drive through Millennium Park, past Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, and Soldier Field.
The news is reporting the final figure—17 dead—in the school shooting in Parkland, FL. Two coaches, a teacher, and 14 students. We’re beginning to learn details about the victims. One of the coaches died throwing himself in front of his students to protect them, just like Blair Holt did on that CTA bus years ago. One of the girls was born in Venezuela and had just become a U.S. citizen. One of the boys was a senior who had planned to swim for the University of Indianapolis this fall. We’re losing some of our best, our most promising.
I’m thinking about something Garrard said—how if we don’t forgive, we can’t “wake up in the morning and do what we’ve got to do.
“Do you realize how important each of us is the moment we wake up? The good Lord has given us another day to do something good. How much more transparent can it get?”
After a few miles the ever-intelligent Siri insists we stay on this road, but something seems off. I look to my travel companion—she’s not sure. Road signs—confusing. But we’re supposed to be getting on the Chicago Skyway, and this other ramp is going up—to where, I’m not sure. The clouds have cleared away, the choice seems obvious. So I trust what I can see and we take it.
—Interview by Christina Egbert
Forgiving Cain is scheduled for release in the fall of 2018. For more information: https://filmmakerscollab.org/films/forgiving-cain/