Luis Berrios leans into his cane with one hand and grips a stack of papers in his other while slowly walking down the street.
This outing has been nearly five months in the making, since the fateful November night in 2018 when two men came up from behind Berrios outside his home, and one shot him in the back. It was a botched robbery — his assailants ran off with nothing, leaving Berrios on the street to die.
Even as he lay in a Temple University Hospital bed, hooked up to multiple machines that served as his scrambled insides, Berrios penned a letter of forgiveness to his shooters. I shared it in an earlier column.
With so much time to think, he drafted and redrafted the letter and thought mostly of the day he could walk his Hunting Park neighborhood, not far from where he thinks the man who shot him lives, to put it into the hands of people he hoped would appreciate its message.
Monday was that day. He and a handful of friends — some who conceded they didn’t know if they could be so quick to forgive — walked block after city block. They slid the letters through front doors, under windshields, and into the mailboxes and hands of people who seemed equal parts impressed and bewildered.
“I’m grateful that you’ve forgiven them,” an elderly woman who sat on her front porch on Colwyn Street told Berrios.
Ms. B, as the 78-year-old said she’s known around the neighborhood, studied Berrios from her perch as they spoke. “It’s lifted a burden off of you,” she concluded.
Berrios, 35, nodded. “It’s a step; it’s a step toward change,” he told her.
What Berrios, who empathizes with young men who’ve lost their way, hopes is that even if neither man answers for his actions, the letter might find its way to them or others going down the same path and cause a change of heart. A reason to put down their guns. An understanding that even if gun violence doesn’t kill someone, it forever changes lives: Berrios had a good job with a technical training school before he got shot. Work’s been supportive, but right now he’s relying on donations and food stamps while he awaits financial support from the state’s Victim Compensation Assistance Program, which receives 8,600 claims a year and pays out about $13 million — an average of $1,511.
And there’s the other reason why instead of sitting in his home, just two weeks from a seven-hour surgery to put his insides back together, leaving him with 25 stitches down his torso, he’s hobbling over uneven streets, up and down cracked steps to talk to people who weren’t always sure what to make of him.
“It doesn’t have to be hate always,” he said, as we watched one letter fixed to a screen door flap in the wind. “I think the process of forgiveness is healing.”
On North Broad Street, two women who had just left Bible study stopped to take a letter. They’d put him on their prayer list, they said. A neighborhood pastor shook his hand, saying, “God bless you.”
Others looked away or grabbed the letter and scurried off, into homes with cameras affixed to their front doors. One man yelled for the group to move along. They didn’t want to get involved.
That’s part of the problem, his friends said as they continued on, undeterred. It’s easy to look away until you can’t anymore.
A young man on Jerome Street complimented Berrios on his capacity to do something that many couldn’t. “I don’t know if I’d do the same,” said the man, whose brother was shot and killed a few years ago.
On Colwyn Street, Asha Holland stopped her car to grab a letter. Tucked into her dashboard was a funeral announcement for her 22-year-old brother, Siefuddiyn Tymir Holland, gunned down inside a West Philadelphia home in 2018; his killer has not been caught.
Holland sat in her car and read the letter.
“Despite everything, I don’t hate you,” read one of the lines.
Inspiring words, but even the thought of forgiving her brother’s killer brought her to tears.