Barefoot & Preaching is a syndicated monthly column in The Catholic Register.
Delivered in memory of Abbie Speir at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Regina, Saskatchewan on July 23, 2020, at the Sentencing Hearing for Kevin Obina Okafor.
So often, in the days since you took Abbie’s life, Kevin, people have said that they cannot imagine what it is like to go through this. But they describe exactly the nature of your offence: you took murder out of the realm of the imaginary and made it our collective, actual and terrible reality: our reality and yours.
In the winter of 2012, Abbie left her marriage and brought you into our lives. It was a difficult time for us as we adjusted to the loss of her marriage. But Dad has always said we do not get to choose who our people love. She chose you, so we set our hearts to welcoming you and moving into a new world and a new family with you.
Abbie had a huge heart. She saw the best in people even while she teased us about our hang-ups and wouldn’t let us get away with excuses. She had a rare combination of an honest view of people’s humanity and an unconditional love for people as they were. When we were talking about our lives and relationships one evening, she told me that you had a hard life and that it gave you hard edges but that you also had a big heart.
We saw your heart, Kevin, in the ways you flew kites with our kids, your big laugh, your generous gifts, and your face as you cast a fishing line. As a part of our family, you became a father and an uncle, and sat among the brothers and sons-in-law. We also saw you struggle, and we opened our hearts to love you because Abbie loved you. And the two of you created the most beautiful people in your daughters. You appear in four years of photos as a member of our family. This is part of the particular wound and pain and complication of domestic violence: that someone we have loved destroys someone we love. The threat did not come from outside of our family but from within it.
When I hugged her the very last time, she was trying to get away from the hard edges, the broken parts of you that were hurting her, but she was still defending you. On the night of April 20, 2017, I sat with two friends worrying for Abbie. I whispered to them that I was afraid that something was going to happen to her before she could get out: it was 9:15 and she was already dead.
I shook through 7 days of not being able to see and hold her battered body. I held her children and yours while they cried for their mama and I could not bring them to her. My tears fell alongside theirs as we all ached for her. My children lost their innocence as I told them that you hurt Auntie Abbie so bad that she died. My children were initiated far too soon to a world where people who love you can not only hurt you, but also kill you. After her aunt left her uncle, my oldest daughter asked me when I was going to leave her dad; the night before Abbie’s funeral, I sat on a bed while that same girl asked me through her tears if the same thing could happen in our house. I buried my miscarried daughter, Claire, in a tiny urn in Abbie’s grave. We tell stories about her to our children and to yours instead of wrapping our arms around Abbie and knowing her still. Every year for the last three, and for the rest of my life, I celebrate the birthday I shared with my twin sister and wonder at what she would have taught me if only this year had been given to her. I have spent hours and days and weeks in counselling to deal with grief and anger, all while I continue to do my best as a daughter, sister, partner, parent, employee, and neighbour. So much of the energy that should have been spent on living and loving freely has been redirected to surviving and healing from violent trauma. You made that choice for me and for all of us.
Every day since Abbie died, I discover new losses that I didn’t see coming. When our youngest son was born, I picked up the phone to call her only to remember she can’t answer, and then grieved all over again that he will never get his nickname from her. When the pandemic hit, I craved hearing her sarcastic wisdom on our shared work in healthcare. As I looked at the lines in my face while I was writing these words, it hit me that I have also lost the chance to see the age lines in hers. Abbie pushed me out of my comfort zone, helped me to see my own beauty, and taught me to laugh at myself. Her loss means learning to do these things without her, while I ache to know what each season would have been like with her. For the rest of my life, I will grieve the losses still yet to come.
Murder means that we have not been able to move through the grieving process in the days, weeks and months that followed Abbie’s death. We have been suspended in a space between the news of her death and full knowledge about what happen to her. Our family has honoured the instructions not to speak to each other about our respective experiences on the night Abbie died, recognizing that doing so might have jeopardized the legal process. As a result, I have been unable to speak to my parents and siblings about the hardest parts of our collective trauma and grief. The silent injustice of our experience as victims has been suffocating. I have been trapped in the waiting, haunted by my imagination of her suffering, pulled back into the trauma every time you walked back into a courtroom. My heart has been broken as I watched my dad and sister struggle to testify in court. We have been waiting for today, for 1190 days, to hear the sequence of events that transpired that night.
It is so very clear to me that this is a legal system, and not a justice system. No resolution or sentence is capable of bringing about justice for the loss of Abbie’s vibrant and beautiful life. And I need, so desperately, for my sister’s violent death to be one part of my history instead of my constant and present reality.
Because it seems like it would be easier to hate you, it has been particularly painful to realize that in addition to losing Abbie, we have also lost all the best parts of you. I feel this especially when I push your daughters on the swings or have the privilege of combing and braiding their hair after a bath. That night, [Abbie’s children] not only lost their mother, they also lost their father. Though they do not want for the love of a mother and father now, they have lost their biological parents’ presence in their lives.
I have always believed that hurting people hurt people. I cannot imagine the size and shape and colour of the hurt that would lead you to exact pain on Abbie until she bled out on the floor in front of you, taking a mother’s love from her children, and leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of all of us who knew and loved her. We do not get to choose so much of what life brings to us, but we do get to choose how we respond. I believe that every single one of us is capable of responding to our own pain by doing the sort of thing you have done. And I believe it is each human being’s responsibility deal with our pain so that we do not pass it on to others. Instead of dealing with your own pain, you exacted it on Abbie, on our family, and on me. But I also believe that the measure of a person is not the sum of their worst actions. You are living and so you get to keep choosing.
It is my hope that this guilty plea is a sign of the beginning of your healing process.
It would make too light of the work of forgiveness to say that I have forgiven you. I will spend my whole life working to actively forgive you: because you have stolen a lifetime of moments with Abbie that I cannot grieve until they arrive, because there is still so much of what happened that we have not been permitted to know so that you would get a fair trial; and mostly because I refuse to be locked inside the destructive prison of hatred. The world has more than enough hatred and violence already. Fostering hate imprisons the one who chooses it, so I choose to pursue forgiving you mostly for me and for our family. I will not cooperate with the violence you chose the night Abbie died. I will not allow you to do any more damage to our family than has already been done. We are doing the work to have more healing, more peace, more love in our family in spite of Abbie’s death.
Even if and when we have finished the work of forgiveness, it will not set you free unless you do your own healing work. It is my greatest hope that someday you will be healed enough to not be a danger to the rest of us living in the world. For most, prison is a place that threatens to harden you further and that grieves me too. In spite of this, I wish you healing. I hope that you will have the grace to fully see and take responsibility for what you have done and what you have failed to do. In the years before you, I hope you will become the man that Abbie believed you could be. I hope that there will come a day that you know deeply the grace of being loved and forgiven.
Go gently, Kevin. One awful night you chose Abbie’s death. But life and death is still set before you even now; I pray that, somehow, you will choose life.
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On Being Barefoot…
Before the burning bush, God asks Moses to take off his sandals, to notice and reverence that he walks on holy land. This holy land continues to burn before me, before us, signaling God’s presence before we arrived rather than because we did. This life we are living was holy before we existed in it. This land and creation we call home is the first book of revelation, God’s love letter to us, bearing witness to the Creator of it all.Our lives and the moments that make them up are the stuff of sainthood, our invitations to participate in Divine life to be swallowed up and fulfilled by God. At the grocery store, in the false solitude of our cars and commutes, in our laundry rooms, and over text messages. My shoes run the risk of “protecting” me from the sacredness of this naked moment. And how I love shoes, and how my sensitive toes resist the prickles of grass and the mess of sand. But barefoot is how my spirituality works, daring to live an embodied and earthy love of Jesus who took on flesh. I’m wandering through this life, yearning to let go of my shoes, to walk reverently and with deep attention to what passes under my feet and to what isn’t yet my path. Barefoot is how I write, how I speak, how I work. Experience shored up against an insatiable thirst for knowledge; direct honesty honed by sensitivity; and vulnerability chained to a commitment to competency. And an unapologetically barefoot tendency to speak it as I feel it, which leads me to…
I’m a preacher without a pulpit, with words that burn until they are spoken ~ aloud or on a page.
My ministry is one of colliding words and ideas, reaching out to find a connection with God’s amazing people.
The world seems to me to be spilling over with grace and we seem to be people who, all too quickly forget that all of this is pure gift.
When I’m driving, eating, visiting, resting, cleaning, working, playing, and almost everything else, I’m frequently stunned by the pure miracle of what simply is.
It’s not all promised joy and ease, but it is all presenced and remembered by the One who gives it. And I can’t stop talking about it, proclaiming it, preaching this good news that we have not been forgotten or forsaken in any moment of this life.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, my words seem to be given to encourage and inspire. In a world where women and girls are still too-often silenced or secondary, I’m barefoot and preaching because my soul won’t rest any other way. If my words can be a gift to you, then that is a gift for me.