I first met Shad Ali when we were both being recorded for a Channel 4 programme on forgiveness. His interview made it through to transmission – mine didn’t. It was obvious why; Shad had an extraordinary way of expressing ideas and feelings, and his story had a real capacity to open minds and hearts. After being the victim of an unprovoked and brutal attack in Nottingham in 2008, Shad had dedicated his life to finding humanity in a situation which he claimed had dehumanised both him and his attacker.
You couldn’t fail to fall for this man, with his warmth, humour and his fascination in everything and everyone. He was a talker – he knew that – but a deep listener too. He made everyone feel acknowledged and heard, including the many prisoners he worked with when sharing his story for The Forgiveness Project’s RESTORE programme. One of them summed up succinctly the effect that Shad had on many: ‘If only the world was like Shad, how much better a place it would be’. Another wrote in a feedback form: ‘Until today I thought that victims didn’t care less and really wanted the person to suffer.’
We have in our files at the office countless similar reactions from those who heard Shad’s story; a story which is shared on The Forgiveness Project website, in our book (The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age) and in this short video made by Resight Films:
Also, this year, Shad was thrilled to have been at the first public screening of a documentary about his story called “The Meeting”, in which cameras filmed the restorative justice conference between him and his attacker, Glenn, at HMP Featherstone. Shad remained a firm supporter of Glenn until the end, visiting him in prison and speaking out against the harsh and inhumane IPP sentence Glenn had received, convinced that his attacker had made sufficient amends long after his tariff had expired. He told me that showing the film to Glenn had been incredibly moving: ‘it felt like such a milestone for us both.’
Shad also introduced The Forgiveness Project to a young man called Jacob Dunne, who had recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter. Jacob came to regard Shad as a mentor and later went through a restorative justice process himself with the mother of the man he killed. Shad was thrilled by Jacob’s progress, writing to me recently: ‘Every time I see him it feels like Jacob is just growing and growing and growing!!!’
I have told Shad’s story countless times in lectures, in the media and in presentations because it is such a powerful, and actually relatively rare, example of someone for whom forgiveness manifested as a sudden and spontaneous instinct to heal. It was not a conscious decision but a profound awareness – from the moment he gained consciousness after the attack – that it was his responsibility to break the cycle of harm through forgiveness.
Shad’s emails always ended with the words ‘peace, love and harmony’ – he meant every word. This was Shad Ali’s true nature and he lived by his vision. If I was grappling with a dilemma about forgiveness I would sometimes seek his advice; his responses were always long and considered. Earlier this year I emailed him about the petition and outcry that had arisen when Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger were due to talk at the WoW festival in London. Tom Stranger had raped Thordis Elva two decades earlier and they had since written a book together called South of Forgiveness. Some people were saying this was dangerous because by going public with her story of rape and forgiveness Elva was therefore suggesting all victims of sexual violence should forgive. I told Shad I was worried that our stories might be having a similar unintended effect.
Shad’s reply was both thoughtful and helpful. ‘No matter how you present these incredible stories and the people who they belong to, there will always be someone waiting to knock you down unfortunately. I still get it all the time!’ he wrote. ‘The problem is that when we live in a world where empathatic and compassionate responses to harm and violence are not encouraged as an option for healing, then every time a story of genuine forgiveness is shared it is always going to be challenged.’
He was adamant that The Forgiveness Project shouldn’t change the way it worked ‘because it transforms people’s lives; I am living proof of that. My view is that these differing views are all part and parcel of the journey and inevitably many people will get offended or distressed as it triggers their own traumas and recollections of the harm that has been done to them. The fact that they respond in the way that they do is confirmation to me that there is work still to be done and an affirmation that the stories of forgiveness need to be shared…they give some people hope and a way out of their misery.’
The last time I saw Shad was at the launch of our new F Word exhibition at the Oxo Tower in March. Emailing a few days before he came to London he wrote: ‘I look forward very much to seeing you on Wednesday on what will be a momentous occasion for you and The Forgiveness Project. One that I am deeply proud and privileged and honoured to be part of. Each day I realise more and more the power of sharing these stories.’
The Forgiveness Project is also deeply honoured and privileged to have known Shad Ali, and to have had him work with us in prisons giving prisoners hope. He taught us so much about the process of love, understanding and humanity, and this too will become part of his incredible legacy.
And finally, and most importantly, our love and thoughts go out to Shad’s wife. Rachelle was vital to his life and a crucial part of his compassionate journey.
Founder, The Forgiveness Project