The Last Page

A Future with Forgiveness

By Carly Ritter '05

It is remarkable how significantly the course of my life changed with an act as trivial as checking my mailbox. One week before graduation, and having just made the decision to move to New York City, I bumped into Lila Meade wife of Andrew Meade, director of international services and assistant to the dean of the college, while getting my mail. I had met the Meades while volunteering for the Vassar Haiti Project during my senior year. As Lila grabbed me aside, she had a sense of urgency I hadn’t seen before. She told me she had someone she wanted me to meet.


Carly Ritter '05 planting the olive tree for peace in Beirut's Garden of Forgiveness
Carly Ritter '05 planting the olive tree for peace in Beirut's Garden of Forgiveness

Father Lyndon Harris was visiting Vassar for the day to talk with Lila about his current project. Lila and Father Harris met at St. Paul’s Chapel, located directly across the street from the World Trade Center site, where he was the priest in charge of the massive relief ministry in the months following September 11, 2001. The moment I heard about what he was planning now, I knew I had to be involved in some — any — capacity. Father Harris was working to take the positive energy from the spontaneous ministry at St. Paul’s and move it forward, by creating a global network of Gardens of Forgiveness with corresponding educational and programmatic initiatives. These Gardens serve as spaces for healing, where we can reflect on our pain and consider the possibility of forgiveness as one life-giving response — where we can acknowledge and grieve the horrors that happen to us as humans, both individually and collectively, and then decide to make the world a better place by not reciprocating.

If my Vassar education had taught me one thing, it was to think of creative, unconventional ways that I might change my community for the better. And, of course, the prospect of changing the world was never presented as a long shot either! Now here I was, learning about a project intended to heal and offer hope to our broken, wounded communities — but by taking a perhaps counterintuitive, even subversive, angle: forgiveness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu insists that there can be “no future without forgiveness.” Looking at the patterns of history and considering the current state of the world, it is clear that humanity has not been effective in its attempts to establish peace through forceful means. We must acknowledge that something is not working; the old patterns for conflict resolution are not helping. Having worked now for eight months on the Garden of Forgiveness initiative, I have never felt more convinced that it is time for us, with courage and humility, to champion this cause as a most powerful method for creating the future—a future beyond violence and revenge. The Garden of Forgiveness is an idea whose time has come.

Perhaps the greatest gift of working on this project is the expectant sense of hope I now have. And having hope is so vital at this desperate stage in history. It is hope that tells us it’s not too late—we can yet realize our vision of a peaceful world. Of course, the challenges are great and we have much to do. But there are many gifted people working passionately for various causes that could, together, secure the future we so desire.

The world’s first Garden of Forgiveness has been recently established in central Beirut, Lebanon, where thousands were killed in the violence of their civil war. Last November the organization took family members of 9/11 victims to Lebanon’s Garden of Forgiveness to plant an olive tree for peace. Not one person who stood in that space, on that soil, was untouched by the healing grace of forgiveness, as difficult as the journey there may have been. Now, as we work to realize the vision of a Garden of Forgiveness in New York City, and expand it with burgeoning Gardens of Forgiveness in Poughkeepsie, Los Angeles, Soweto, and Belfast, multiplying the numbers of those empowered and restored by the message and work of forgiveness, the possibilities for global change are endless.

Ritter is originally from Los Angeles, California, and graduated with a major in religion. She is currently working as the executive assistant for the Garden of Forgiveness Initiative (

Photo and Illustration Credits: Olive tree: Manolis Gregoreas; Photo courtesy of Carly Ritter '05