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These hard economic times are driving many people to do things that they wouldn't ordinarily do. In a story passed on to me by a friend, I read about one man who was so desperate that he tried to rob a convenience store so he could feed his family. But that night, he received something far more valuable than any goods he might have been able to steal. He received the gift of forgiveness from the convenience store owner, and that gift not only transformed him, but returned to bless the owner as well. Here is yet another inspiring story about the miracle of forgiveness that is at the heart of the path of A Course in Miracles.
This story was reported in an article by Frank Eltman of the Associated Press. A convenience store owner named Mohammad Sohail was closing his store in Garden City, New York one night when a man with a baseball bat came in, intent on robbing the store. Sohail distracted the man long enough to grab the rifle he had behind the counter. He pointed the rifle at the man, demanding that he drop the bat.
At that point, though, something unexpected happened: The man broke down in tears, told Sohail he was committing the crime only to support his starving family, dropped to his knees, and begged for forgiveness. This act of contrition touched Sohail's heart. "This was a grown man, crying like a baby," Sohail says. "He started crying that he was out of work and was trying to feed his hungry family. I felt bad for him. I mean, this wasn't some kid." Moved by compassion, Sohail not only didn't shoot the man, but he generously offered gifts. He provided $40 and a loaf of bread, and all he asked for in return was the man's promise never to rob again.
This act of kindness touched the man deeply — so deeply that he said to Sohail, a Muslim, that he wanted to become a fellow Muslim. Sohail gave him this gift as well, guiding him in a profession of the Muslim faith. Amazingly, this encounter that began with two men wielding a baseball bat and a gun ended with the two men shaking hands. Sohail then went to the back of the store to get the man some milk, but when he returned the man was gone. Sohail did report the crime to the police, but says he will not press charges if the man is caught.
Sohail's actions may look saintly — indeed, it is precisely because they were so remarkable and inspiring that they made the news — but he himself says what he did was no big deal. His reward is simply the joy of helping another person in need. He says simply, "I'm a very little man. I just did a good job. I have a good feeling in my heart. I feel very good."
In spite of Sohail's humility (and in part because of that humility), I am amazed at what he did, and find this story incredibly inspiring. It reminds me of so many things that have inspired me over the years. Sohail's giving a loaf of bread to a man with a starving family calls to mind the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, one of my all-time favorites. In this novel, the hero of the story, Jean Valjean, is sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Later in the story, he receives his own life-changing gift of forgiveness from a kindly bishop from whom he attempts to steal some silver candlesticks. Like Sohail, the bishop refuses to press charges against Valjean, and all he asks for in return is for Valjean to become an honest man. Valjean's life is transformed forever.
It reminds me of Jesus' injunctions in the gospels to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and give your shirt as well to someone who takes your coat. The essence of these injunctions is that when someone tries to take something from you, you not only don't resist the taker, but you give him twice as much as he asks. Now of course, Sohail did resist with a rifle at first, and I do wonder what would have happened if the man who tried to rob him had not started crying. Moreover, I'm sure the man was probably going after more that $40 and a loaf of bread. But Sohail's later decision to forgive and offer the man gifts does bring these injunctions to my mind.
It reminds me that you can forgive in any situation, no matter how extreme. Course students often ask me how we can forgive the more extreme things that happen to us, especially right as they are happening. While this is a bit of an aside from Sohail's story (since I don't really know the extent of his spiritual practice), I'll offer a thought on this here. The key for me is making sure that I have built a solid foundation of Course practice throughout the day. If I have done that, then my mind will be in a more miracle-minded place, and therefore I will be much more likely to respond from that miracle-minded place when a difficult situation suddenly confronts me. The more fuel I have in my spiritual gas tank, the more likely my spiritual engine will run when it is most needed.
It reminds me that forgiveness offered by one person to another can truly transform the other person — it can change the other person's life forever. Of course, in some cases the other person may not consciously accept the gift of forgiveness, but even then, the Course promises that every true gift is received deep in the mind of the receiver, and conscious acceptance of it is only a matter of time. In this case, of course, the would-be robber did consciously accept the gift, so much so that he wanted to become a fellow Muslim. When someone teaches you such a beautiful lesson, you naturally want whatever enabled that someone to teach such a lesson.
Along these lines, the man's desire to convert to Sohail's Islamic faith reminds me of the Manual statement that teaching "is a method of conversion" (M-In.2:8). True, this line isn't talking so much about literal conversion to a particular religion; it is more about being converted to the way of forgiveness and love, whatever form that takes. But still, what Sohail taught clearly converted the robber's heart in a deep way, which prompted his desire to become a fellow Muslim.
Finally, this story reminds me that when you forgive, you yourself receive the gift. That Manual line about teaching being a method of conversion is talking primarily about the fact that teaching converts the teacher to whatever it is he is teaching. And you can see that, I believe, in this story. At the beginning of the story, Sohail was pointing a gun at his would-be robber. I can only imagine the fear and anger that was going through his mind at that time. At that point, he was hardly teaching forgiveness and love, and certainly wasn't experiencing forgiveness and love himself.
But when the would-be robber broke down in tears, Sohail was moved by compassion. He lowered his gun, offered gifts, and in the end shook hands with the man he was ready to kill moments before. This not only transformed the man, but clearly transformed Sohail as well. As a result of doing a "good job," Sohail says, "I have a good feeling in my heart. I feel very good." I can imagine that at least to a certain extent, he must feel forgiven for some of the acts he regrets in his life. Doing good for others has that effect on you. It really is a method of conversion.
This simple formula — offering forgiveness to others and thus receiving it yourself — is the heart of the spiritual path according to A Course in Miracles, the true engine of awakening, whatever one's formal religion or lack thereof. The Course puts it succinctly in this passage from the Workbook:
Forgive and be forgiven. As you give you will receive. There is no plan but this for the salvation of the Son of God. (W-pI.122.6:3-5)
Thank you, Mohammad Sohail, for demonstrating this beautiful truth to me once again. I cannot be reminded enough.