PEACE TALKS: A STORY OF FORGIVENESS (KUNM Airdate: 4/30/04)
Forgiveness is a rebirth of hope, a reorganization of thought, and a reconstruction of dreams. Once forgiving begins, dreams can be rebuilt. When forgiving is complete, meaning has been extracted from the worst of experiences and used to create a new set of moral rules and a new interpretation of life's events.
-Beverly Flanigan - author and professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin
Phil Perea and Frank Tollardo of Taos share an unusual bond. In July 2003, Frank Tollardo's 22-year old son, Eric, and two others (Nathaniel Maestas, 14, and Alfredo Rael, 23) were shot to death. Phil Perea's son, Jason, 26, was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 41 years in prison. Instead of polarizing themselves, the two fathers, Perea and Tollardo, are working together to help Taos youth out of the cycle of violence. By promoting a trade school to offer an alternative to gangs, the two men are trying to improve conditions in their home town.
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FRANK TOLLARDO and PHIL PEREA
Frank, I read that when you first heard of your son Eric's murder, you were really angry the first day, but by the end of the second day, that had changed. What happened?
Frank Tollardo: First of all, I'm a Christian. The natural thing to do when something like this happens, is, you know, you're angry. But I honestly believed that God touched me on the second day. He knew that he had to get the anger out of me and he did. And he knew that I had to be strong for my family. And I was.
When you say God touched you, can you describe what that means?
Tollardo: It's kind of hard to explain but I just felt a peace - a peace come into me. I knew that my son was a Christian - which really helped a lot. I knew where he went. I honestly believe he's in heaven right now in a way better place than where we're at. He has no worries.
Frank, how have you been able to forgive Jason for the role he played in Eric's death?
Tollardo: I know most people can't understand how I could forgive...so quick. After Eric's death, I started to pray alot. I prayed for three weeks to a month, just day and night.
And one day I was walking out of my house and it's like the Lord spoke to me and said, "You need to call Phil Perea and tell him that you forgive the family (and) the son, Jason." So I did.
I called up Phil and we set up a meeting with his pastor and my pastor.
Typically with violent crimes, it's difficult for the victim's family to forgive the accused, and particularly their family - much less collaborate. Phil, tell us the story about how you two were able to create a bridge and work together.
Phil Perea: I got a call from my pastor (and he) told me that Frank wanted to meet with me. I got that phone call when I was in the office of my son's lawyer. The lawyer said "Don't Go!" And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Your son just got finished killing his son. They're going to set you up and they're going to kill you. I don't care what you think, I've seen it so many times. They're setting you up."
When I got out to there, the first thing my wife told me was "You're going. Aren't you?" And I said, "Yeah. I know Frank. I know part of his family. I want to meet with him. I want to hear what this man's got to say." When I showed up at the church in Taos, Frank showed up a little bit late ...and the first thing that came out of Frank's mouth was "You tell Jason that I forgive him." (Frank) said "I'm a little shaky, I'm a little nervous. But what I want to know is can you help me?" And I said, "Sure, what is it that you want?" And he said, "I want to start a program for the youth."
Phil, I want to go back to the courage that it took to go to that meeting. I mean, you must have been a little bit worried if people were telling you he might retaliate. How did you overcome that fear?
Perea: Well, for the first two weeks, I carried a gun. Everybody in town told me...your life is in danger. Not only from Frank but there's two other fathers. They said, "They're going to wipe out the Pereas." But right after, I got a peace of mind and said, "Lord, I hand everything over to you. My son, the whole situation." I put the guns away. I don't need them. Every morning I wake up and say, "What a beautiful day to die." If it was my turn, it'd be right there and then. I'd say "Thank you." Why? They're just sending me home a little sooner. I'm not worried about death.
Frank, talk a little about retaliation. Because that seems to be part of our culture. People would expect you to retaliate for your son.
Tollardo: Well, the thing about it is, I knew my son, Eric, really good. I knew that he wouldn't retaliate and I wouldn't want him to do it if it was me that was dead. I told Eric's friends at the burial, because I heard a lot of his friends saying "retaliation," but I told them "no retaliation." I don't want no blood on my son's hands. Myself too. I've never wanted any blood on my hands. If somebody comes after me with a gun, I'm going to let them shoot me. I'm not going to try and shoot them back. I'll let them take me out.
Phil, how does Jason feel about things now?
Perea: Well, he's turned around and he apologized. He even wrote a letter and told me to give it to Frank and tell him how sorry he was and the mistake that he did was a great one. He tried to apologize to the other families and he was quite remorseful. He regrets what he's done.
Is it a requirement to have strong religious beliefs, like you do, to forgive?
Tollardo: No it's not a requirement. Anyone can forgive. Non-Christians, Christians, whoever they are they should learn how to forgive. If everybody could learn to forgive, just think how this world could be?
Perea: Forgiveness is a healing process. Without forgiveness, you can get ruined within yourself. There's a lot of "fly-by-night" Christians. So-called Christians. You don't know their true colors until something (like this) happens. If you believe in any respect that it will be solved without violence, it'll happen. And it will start with peace of mind, peace within yourself and saying, "I gotta work at it." But just to say, "I forgive you," then turn around and be bitter and hateful and everything, won't work.
Crime in Taos is 4 times the national average. What do you think makes Taos more susceptible to violence?
Perea: Lack of work. There's teenagers that come out of school and graduate. They don't have no choice but to stick around and get in trouble. If the work economy was higher in Taos, then I could see them getting a job and staying busy within themselves.
Tell us what you two are doing.
Perea: When Frank and I had that first meeting, he mentioned something about doing something for the youth. Not ping-pong, not basketball. But something they could do with their hands. We came up with the solution of a body shop. A body shop where they could work with their hands and be proud of what they built. We don't have anything like that. How many times have you heard someone say, "I'm taking a mechanics school." "Where?" "Phoenix, Arizona." Why can't it be in Taos? "I'm taking wood-carving." "Where?" "Phoenix." Why couldn't it be in Taos? And I feel if you give these kids something to do with their own hands, get them off the street, you got something working for you.
How's it going?
Tollardo: Right now we're just talking to people to see what kind of help we could get. I've talked with a lot of contractors that I know and they're willing to help build this place and volunteer their time. We just haven't had enough response or funds. And we need to find some land and things like that.
Perea: Right now we're just taking names.
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