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01 November 2013

Finding forgiveness in grief

On Christmas Eve, church organist Alan Greaves' widow Maureen will mark the anniversary of her husband's brutal murder. The devastated Church Army evangelist tells Lucy Cooper how she can speak of forgiveness for the killers...

"I am sorry to say your husband has been brutally attacked on his head," said the consultant. I was shocked to the core. 'Is he dying?' I asked. 'I'm afraid so, yes,' came the reply," Maureen tells me.

Alan had suffered injuries "consistent with a road traffic accident" after being attacked by two men – who had chosen him at random – while he was on his way to midnight mass.

"That moment at the hospital was the first time I realised the severity of Alan's injuries. The police had arrived at the house earlier but I had misunderstood them, expecting a few stitches and to take him straight home. After all, he was due to play Christmas day, I was preaching and we were celebrating our daughter's return from Mozambique.

"Walking down that corridor took forever," she recalls. "I prayed: 'I don't know what's happening but just be with me every step of the way, Jesus.' The room was full with a trauma team but all fell silent as I entered. His head was absolutely horrific. I had to look at his hand to recognise him."


Greaves WeddingIt was instant attraction for Maureen when she met Alan in March 1971. He took till October to ask her out but by Christmas, the couple were engaged. "He was a real gentleman, a gifted musician, extremely kind, with such a deep respect for people. People paid tribute that he never spoke ill of others. I was really proud to be his wife.

"It was not a perfect marriage but we were madly in love with each other. I knew he was my soul mate when, on our second date, he took my hand and said 'let's pray about our future together'."

Living in High Green in Sheffield, Alan and Maureen have four children in their 30s. Their two sons have learning difficulties so need extra support. Alan, 68, had retired early from social work to help his wife, who has been working for the Church Army since 2008. Both worked tirelessly, serving their community.

In early December, just weeks before the attack, they had proudly opened a new community project which serves as a foodbank, an impromptu café, laundry service, and sells clothes and furniture at a very low cost for struggling families.

"As a Church Army evangelist, I focus on people outside the Church and I began meeting people with material needs. To begin with, we stored furniture in our garage, but we needed a premises. Approaching a landlord, I said to Alan: 'You do the praying while I do the talking.' We rented the building for an amazing price – a lovely miracle.

"For 40 years, the Greaves had lived near their churches and Alan, the organist for each, would always walk. Leaving for the10-minute walk to the St Saviours midnight service, with Maureen staying at home, was routine. But this time, the year of their Ruby wedding, the cruel actions of two men changed family life forever.


"By his bedside on Christmas day I took his hand and prayed: 'Lord how am I going to deal with all this? I need to know how to handle this grief and be a mother to my four children. What am I going to do with the people who have murdered him?' I suddenly knew that these men were going to be a big issue."

Knowing both Alan and God would want her to choose forgiveness, Maureen was decisive. "One of Alan's statements came into my mind strongly: 'Now Maureen, we must never give ourselves permission to go down that road because it is not glorifying to God.'

"I was clear that forgiving wasn't that I didn't want justice. I did, but that was up to God."

"'Please take from me the burden of carrying the men that have murdered Alan. Help me to truly and fully forgive them and give me the grace to continue, all my life, in that position of forgiveness. Take any hatred that may creep in and may I be able to show this forgiveness and grace to others.' That was my sincere and deep prayer. I have to go back to this prayer continually."

She explained to her daughters about her decision. "I was clear that forgiving wasn't saying that I didn't want justice. I really wanted justice, but that was up to God."

Jonathan Bowling had admitted to murder. Maureen went every day to the four-week trial of Ashley Foster, who was finally convicted of manslaughter.

She explains why she found a murder different to other family deaths: "You have so much more to deal with. You have police, the media and the trial, which is extremely difficult because you meet the attackers and their families and you see their tears. You listen to a lot of details about your husband and his injuries – constantly taking you back to Christmas Eve."

When faced with public outrage, Maureen says: "I have been able to stand and say, through God's grace, 'that is not what I want. I want you to leave them in God's hands too.'

"At the time, I was unsure how to speak to the media. Mark Russell [chief executive of Church Army] visited and said: 'Maureen, if you can speak about this, then this opportunity could be a gift. You are an evangelist.' I've been able to speak about my faith in a way I could never have dreamed of."

She concludes: "There have been moments of shocking loneliness and 10,000 tears, but God has met my needs and carried me. My life has changed dramatically but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that God has a future for me."

This year the Christmas Eve service at St Saviours will take place at 11pm at the park railings, the same time and place Alan was attacked. The community will gather, bringing lights. "We will state very clearly that Jesus is the light of the world and no darkness can ever put it out."

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