Rachel Muha’s son Brian was brutally murdered, but she refused anger and hatred
When your beloved child is killed by two young people breaking into an off-campus student residence, how do you deal with your feelings of anger and hatred? Would you demand revenge?
Rachel Muha lives in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. She still remembers every thought from that night in 1999. Her younger son, Brian Charles Richard Muha, was born on July 23, 1980. Almost 20 years later, he was a student at Franciscan University in Steubenville.
Receiving word that he was missing, the family made hundreds of flyers with his photo and posted them around town. Several days had passed when the police called, saying they found Brian. He had been abducted with a friend and brutally murdered by two young men desperately looking for money to buy drugs.
“We hoped he would be alive, but he was not. I felt the devil was right there and wanted me to hate, but that was the moment I made my decision, ‘No, I won’t give in,’” says Muha.
On May 31, 1999, Brian’s short life ended, but he did not live — or die — in vain.
He had been an excellent student: in high school he won algebra, chemistry and Latin awards, and took honors and advanced placement courses. He was a starting running back and defensive back on the varsity football team, excelled in lacrosse and wrestling, and liked to ski, camp and hike. His goal was to become a doctor because he wanted to help others.
Muha’s faith has always helped her in raising her two sons without their father after her divorce. So it’s not unusual that the words of the Our Father came to mind: “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“I asked myself: Do I really mean that? What is forgiveness? I had learned that it is not to excuse somebody who did something wrong; it doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is okay, that you understand … or that they had good reasons; it doesn’t mean that you take away their punishment, or their guilt. So what is forgiveness? I think it is to refuse to have any anger or hatred toward anybody who hurts us; to have goodwill toward that very person who has broken our heart.”
Muha analyzed quickly in her mind: “I can hate these two men who killed my son. But then, I will hate and I will not get to heaven and I will not see Brian again.”
Another thought followed: “I can’t hate because Brian doesn’t hate … Brian doesn’t hate them.”
She didn’t give in to the feelings of revenge. “It was in the act of forgiveness that God cleared my mind, and I was freed of the destructive anger and bitterness. At the end of the Our Father we say: ‘Lead us not into temptation’ — to hate was a temptation — ‘but deliver us from evil.’ So forgiveness and conquering evil are the same.”
That act of forgiveness didn’t take away her pain. “My heart was broken, and it still is, but my spirit was never broken. That’s where the act of forgiveness makes a difference, it gives you a kind of peace,” says Muha, who founded the Brian Muha Foundation, which teaches inner-city children and adults about forgiveness.
After the crucial moment in which she chose to forgive, Muha spent the summer with her son Christopher and did not want to see anyone. “The memories were always there,” she said.
She would run home from the grocery store in order to avoid meeting anyone. “It takes so much energy … but also for the others. They think, she just lost her son, how do I talk to her?”
It was three months after Brian’s death that she decided to start a scholarship fund for inner-city kids who can’t afford to go to good schools. It was a way to bring ahead what Brian had wanted to accomplish in life. He always wanted to help children.
“And that’s what we did for the first five years. We then started Run The Race Club in 2005, because I felt I needed to do more. I was finally ready: the trials were over, Christopher was very stable, and I thought if you help a child, it can help the whole family.”
Run The Race Club provides afterschool care for more than 100 children in Columbus. “They come after school and go to the gym, play basketball, dodgeball. We have an art and music room, a library, clothing room, a game room, tutoring … they can go outside. We have dinner together, and that is the moment where I have the opportunity to speak to them, to teach them Bible stories. Muha remembered how a youth in juvenile detention once said to her that the one thing he missed was family and having dinner together.
They also go on field trips and have birthday parties. “We do everything that can draw them in so that we can love them. For me it’s not just having the foundation in Brian’s memory. Working with children, the very children that Brian wanted to help, reminds us that God’s will for Brian won’t stop.”
She also purchased the house where Brian and his friend were kidnapped, and it is now used for priests and religious who are studying in Steubenville. “I wanted to transform this place of violence into a place of peace … where Mass is said every day,” she explains. This is her way to heal the wounds.
“Justice can never be served totally and completely if someone takes another person’s life. It is impossible! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to bring into the world the good that that person who died would have brought.”
Her attitude of forgiveness does not stop with these children. Muha advocated for the two men who killed her son. She specifically requested that they not be executed, though one was sentenced to death.
“They are my brothers and yours,” she says, “because we are all children of the same heavenly Father.” When she speaks against the death penalty, it doesn’t mean that she rejects justice or punishment. Rather, by rejecting the death penalty, she embraces life.
“We need to be radical witnesses for life so that we can turn the tide toward a culture of life.”
For Muha, every act of forgiveness is an act on behalf of the whole community: “Our culture would say, ‘Do it for yourself,’ but that’s the tiniest part of it! Forgiveness has an effect on the community … and it calms things down.
“We are made to do things for others. My cousins and everyone in my family older than I were saying that the killers deserved to die … They said it out of love for me, but I told them, that doesn’t lead to anything. Now, years later, they see it differently, and say, ‘You’re such an example for us.’”
Now she sees the effect that her effort has in the community. “The other day, a high school kid walked in, using street slang, and before I could say anything, the other kids said, ‘Don’t talk like this!’ —they got it too.”
Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Nov 2015.