Some Thanksgiving holidays are memorable; not all in pleasant ways. This week we learned about the 1983 arrests of three 16 year old boys on Thanksgiving Day. The charge and later conviction was for murder; the sentence was life in prison.

I’m certain it was a time that Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins,  Andrew Stewart, and their families will never forget.

I won’t go into details of how injustices occurred that robbed these boys of 36 years of their lives. That’s been reported by nearly every news source already. I will focus on their exoneration and release from prison on Monday.

The three boys so wrongfully imprisoned are now much older guys in their 50’s and free finally. Freedom after 36 years means they are free to hug their families and loved ones, to live new lives without prison restraints, and to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with a new personal reality regarding the meaning of exoneration and thanksgiving.

“I’m going to spend Thanksgiving with my mama and live a normal life,” Stewart said. He acknowledged his journey is just beginning and added, “I got to learn how to live right now.”

Watkins explained, “It wasn’t easy. You see us out here; we’re smiling. We’re happy that we’re free, but we’ve got a lot to fix,” he shared and touched his heart. “This should have never happened.”

Chestnut revealed he never gave up hope and that he looks forward to spending the rest of his life praising God and taking care of his family. “I’ve been always dreaming of this. For this day,” he said.

I am deeply saddened when I consider the experience of these men. I am sure I cannot begin to understand their feelings or what they endured. I am thankful that an unimaginable part of their lives is now in their past.

I pray they will live their future lives with thanksgiving in their hearts. May they maintain the same kind of hope that sustained them until their exoneration became reality. We all know they deserve far more than a public apology from a judge — but how can 36 years of a life be returned?

It’s hopeful at least that organizations and individuals will work to find the truth and to right wrongs as best they can. For this I am thankful. I realize it is only by the grace of God that those were not my own footsteps that walked their path.

These newly free men face an unknown and different kind of challenge before them now. May they travel their new road with grace, love, and hope to become examples to the rest of us.

“But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened…. Now when day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, ‘Release those men.’ …They went out of the prison… and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.” (Acts 16:25-40)

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:2-4, 12)

“Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

“I still believe in Your faithfulness.
I still believe in Your truth.
I still believe in Your Holy Word.
Even when I don’t see, I still believe.” (from Jeremy Camp’s song, “I STILL BELIEVE”)

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