How is it possible that two men destined to be enemies were able to forge an unexpected bond in the wake of abhorrent terrorism and tragedy? What transpired in the heart-stirring story of how the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing and the father of her killer (Timothy McVeigh) became friends and found forgiveness?
Bible Gateway interviewed Jeanne Bishop (@jeannebishop), author of Grace from the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation after the Oklahoma City Bombing (Zondervan, 2020).
Please set the context by briefly recounting the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing on April 19, 1995.
Jeanne Bishop: On a beautiful spring day in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 26-year-old Timothy McVeigh pulled a rental truck packed with explosives up to the building and lit the fuses. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 small children. The attack stunned the nation and the world. It was the deadliest strike on American soil since Pearl Harbor. It remains, as of this writing, this country’s most lethal act of domestic terrorism.
Who are the four individuals you write about as having their lives intertwine with each other?
Jeanne Bishop: Julie Marie Welch, 23, who worked as an interpreter in the first floor Social Security office, died in the blast. Julie was the only daughter of Bud Welch, a gas station owner in Oklahoma City who was devastated by her death and started out wanting her killer to die as well. That man was Timothy McVeigh, who had grown up in small town Pendleton, New York, served in combat in the Gulf and Iraq wars, and become infected with the anti-government hate of two men he met in the army: his co-conspirators Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. Timothy McVeigh’s heartbroken father, Bill McVeigh, is a retired auto parts worker who has spent his whole life serving his community, his church, and his country. Tim was his only son.
How is your book formatted?
Jeanne Bishop: The book first introduces the characters: Oklahoma City, the heartland city where I grew up, and the four people—two fathers and their two children. It depicts the suspenseful countdown to the day of the bombing, cross-cutting Tim’s actions and Julie’s as Tim draws closer to his target. The book describes the horrific effects of the bomb and the heroic response of the people of Oklahoma City. And it traces what the two shattered fathers, Bud and Bill, experience as fate draws them closer to their life-changing meeting.
How did Bud and Bill meet and how did their relationship become one of friendship?
Jeanne Bishop: When Timothy McVeigh was under a sentence of death but before he was executed, Bud reached out to the best possible intermediary—a tiny, tough Catholic nun from Buffalo named Sister Roz—and asked her to set up a meeting between him and Bill McVeigh. Both men were nervous about meeting but brave enough to take the risk. They walked in Bill’s garden and found so many things they shared: both from big Catholic families, both grew up on farms, educated in Catholic schools all the way through, both working men who never went to college, three kids each, born just six months apart. Too, they shared the pain of fathers, one man grieving the loss of a beloved child and the other a man about to grieve.
Describe the tragic crime you experienced in your own life.
Jeanne Bishop: My younger sister Nancy, her husband, and their unborn baby were murdered in 1990, shot to death in their home by a teenaged intruder. Before she died, Nancy dragged herself over to her husband’s body and drew a message in her own blood on the floor next to him, a heart shape and the letter “u”: love you. That changed everything for me. Evil never has the last word. Love does. I’ve forgiven my sister’s killer and visit him in prison.
How does gardening and the planting of seeds factor into your book’s story of redemption?
Jeanne Bishop: It’s central to the story—in fact, the recurring motif in the artwork in the book is a tree.
Bud and Bill both are descendants of ancestors who worked the land. They grew up on farms and knew how to plant and harvest. The two men met for the first time in Bill’s huge back yard garden, where he grows a bounty of vegetables that he gives away for free.
Bud’s daughter, Julie, always used to park her car near the Murrah building under the shade of a scraggly elm tree growing out of the asphalt. Though the bomb blast set the cars around it on fire and wounded the tree with shrapnel, the tree managed to survive. Bud saw bulldozers in the lot later and knew he didn’t want the tree torn down. To him, it was a symbol of Julie.
Bud launched the effort to save the tree. An urban forester was brought in to restore it. Now, it’s a flourishing, majestic tree whose seeds are turned into saplings every year and given away on the anniversary of the bombing. It’s called “the Survivor Tree,” and is a living heart of the memorial to the dead in Oklahoma City.
The Bible is rich with metaphors about plants and seeds, about watering and growth. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). He talked about the tiniest mustard seed of faith having the power to move mountains (Matthew 17:20). Isaiah 58:11 tells us the Lord will heal our scorched places and make us “like a watered garden.”
The words of one of my most-loved hymns, Now the Green Blade Riseth, expresses it perfectly:
Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
What Bible passages informed your own—and Bud’s and Bill’s—journey of forgiveness?
Jeanne Bishop: There are several: First, Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them.” Jesus’ prayer for those who were murdering him, asking forgiveness even for those who had not repented, is a powerful example of what we are called to do.
Second, the parable of the Prodigal Son. As New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine points out, this is thought of as the story of an apology, but one was never even made: the father rushes to embrace his son before a word is ever uttered from his lips. It’s a story of the love of God that passes all understanding.
Lastly, the story of the demoniac in Luke 8:26-39. Jesus takes someone who was outcast from his community and restores him to that community. The harsh chains of the villagers did nothing to solve the problem; the healing touch of Christ did.
Why did you want to write this book?
Jeanne Bishop: To talk about how we respond to evil. There’s no shortage of it: witness the massacres of African-Americans attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel Baptist church or Jewish congregants worshiping at Tree of Life synagogue or people whom a hate-filled shooter believed to be immigrants at a Walmart in El Paso.
Evil did not silence my sister Nancy; Timothy McVeigh did not silence Julie. She’s still speaking, through her father Bud, who has told her story all over the world.
What message are you communicating with the book’s title?
Jeanne Bishop: The message is that out of the destruction caused by evil, we can bring good. We can overcome our deepest divisions the way Bud and Bill did: by meeting and talking, by finding our common ground, by showing empathy and compassion to one another. We can redeem tragedy; we can astonish the world with the power of mercy and reconciliation.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Jeanne Bishop: I love God’s promise in Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV): “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and waters in the desert.” God is never content to leave us stuck, mired in the past. God makes a new way; brings forth new life for us.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway?
Jeanne Bishop: It’s my go-to resource for finding Scripture references and translations. I just learned my 20-year-old college son uses it all the time, too!
Grace from the Rubble is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Jeanne Bishop is a public defender, law reform advocate, and writer whose work has appeared in publications including CNN.com, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Sojourners, The Christian Century, law journals, and academic books. She is the author of Grace from the Rubble: Two Fathers’ Road to Reconciliation after the Oklahoma City Bombing and Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer and lives on Chicago’s North Shore with her two sons. Connect with Jeanne at jeannebishop.com or on Twitter at (@jeannebishop).
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