Editor's note: Recently, three potential church members from the same family sought to join a congregation in Reading after being convicted of child molestation. Current church members not only felt uncomfortable but many were outraged.Their concerns included the possibility that food and fellowship time in between Sunday school and church services might allow an opportunity for these child predators to be in direct contact with potential victims.
In an effort to quelch fears, the Pastor offered a strict contract that detailed requirements including no contact with minors as part of the new parishioners' membership requirements.
However, this did not help many members feel safe and they chose to switch churches. Examining what it means to forgive someone and how that is translated into everyday life in accordance to popular religions is the purpose of this article.
The act of forgiveness is often hard to actualize when one is personally wronged in everyday life.
To overcome the urge to hold a grudge or even seek revenge, many people look towards religion for spiritual guidance.
From Christianity to Judiasm to the Islamic faith, many religions have a similar view on cleansing the soul with slightly different approaches to accomplishing the goal.
For most, a sincere heart and regret for wrongdoing with an active awareness to avoid the act or thought in the future is basic.
However, there are some acts that many view unforgivable despite their personal religious beliefs.
Acts such as those that directly hurt children are viewed as taboo in American society, however many religions offer a path to redemption that may be hard for many to accept. Saying, "I'm sorry," doesn't always cut it in many people's books.
Pastor Dave Lewis of New Hanover United Methodist Church, 2211 Swamp Pike in Gilbertsville, says the process depends on the specifics.
"We would look at the situation on a case by case basis. Membership is one thing but teaching a youth group or Sunday school is different. Anyone can come to church as long as they acknowledge that they are a sinner working on redemption and want to follow Christ whatever their background."
Lewis acknowledged that Christianity offers forgiveness to all who are truly repentant.
"We can't kick them out if they failed. Only thing that would disqualify them is arrogance. If somebody commits crime they need to pay the consequences," Lewis added.
Membership begins with an 8-week foundation class that teaches the basic beliefs.
"We begin by saying, `I'm not worthy because we are all sinners," Lewis said.
Pastor Tim Moyer of Vincent Mennonite Church, 387 Stars Road, Spring City, said protection of the congregation would always be a top priority.
"Requiring background checks for church members who wish to work with children is one of the safe guards we will provide. We would not put anyone in question in a leadership position at the church. But many of our members are lifelong members of the congregation," Moyer said.
He said his church has an extensive children's ministry.
Asked about the scenario playing out in the Reading congregation, Moyer said acceptance of members with a history as child predators would come with caveats.
"We would be inclined to accept the new member if there was a sincere conversion but restrictions with children would be made," he said.
"In order to be a bona fide church member, one must accept Jesus as his/her savior. There are classes that teach the beliefs and then one is ready for baptism. We offer baptism as an adult recognizing their decision is an interpersonal commitment," Moyer added. "Membership transfer is possible with a letter of recommendation."
Shariyf D. Abdul Qabid, a high school Islamic Studies teacher at Al Aqsa Islamic Academy, 1501 Germantown Ave. in Philadelphia said the Islam also teaches forgiveness even if some worshippers may find acceptance of some uncomfortable because of their past.
"With regards to forgiveness, we try to forgive everything possible, for we want Allah to forgive our sins and shortcomings. For example, some people may be uncomfortable to attend community prayers or functions with drug addicts, prostitutes, pedophiles, spousal abusers, and or their like."
However, as Qabid explained, in accepting those who had committed wrongdoings believers were simply following the example of Jesus, who Islam identifies as the prophet Isa.
"The prophet Isa kept such company. As Muslims, we follow all the prophets of Islam, from Adam to Muhammad, including Jesus. My teachers have taught me to be compassionate as well as protective. If we disregard these people, they are likely to commit these same heinous crimes again," Qabid added.
Islam emphasizes encouragement towards obedience and so can help past transgressors to fight against "evil and shameful deeds".
"This is how we help the oppressor and the oppressed. We put our faith and trust in Allah but we don't put the innocent and vulnerable in a position of compromise. It is a delicate balance that must be maintained and as servants of Allah, it is our pleasure to enjoin the good and forbid the wrong," Qabid said.
Also, since in Islam, men, women and children do not worship together, concerns about contact with potential victims which plagued the Reading church's congregation may not necessarily be similarly applicable.
Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and teacher of Jewish mysticism, explained her view on forgiveness, with regards to the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, in an on-line interview. "I think of Yom Kippur as a joyous time because looking at our mistakes and mending our ways is something we need to do," Frankel said. "One of the things we're thinking about this time of year is remembering who we really are - that we are sparks of the divine. We get in touch with our highest potential and we ask ourselves, 'Who is the bodhisattva [realized being] that lives inside of us?' And with the strength of that knowledge of who we can be, we say, 'Well, where did I not live up to that highest vision of myself?'
Understanding of the gift of Yom Kippur, of what it means to have a day when we let go of grudges, when we start time over again, when we really forgive ourselves and others and say, 'You know, I begin again.'
"The overwhelming theme of giving someone another chance can be hard for everyday people who let their emotions and fears stand in the way of acceptance," Frankel added. "So does forgiving and forgetting really apply when some sins can be looked at as perversions that are lifelong struggles? Is someone a sinner for simply having the bad thought or are they only considered sinners, in this case, if they act on their sexual perversion."