On Oct. 2, 2006, Matthew Swatzell headed home after working a 24-hour shift as a firefighter/EMT in Dacula, Ga. He was only a few miles from home when he nodded off for just a couple of seconds, crossed over the center line of the road and crashed into another car. Inside the car was a young woman, June Fitzgerald, who was seven months pregnant with a baby boy, and her 19-month-old daughter, Faith.
June’s husband, Erik Fitzgerald, a youth pastor at the time, remembers the day vividly: “I was at home, and I was getting ready to go to seminary because I had classes that day. The senior pastor from my church came by the house and was banging on the front door, so I ran to the front, and he said, ‘June was in an accident; we need to go.’”
At the time, Erik didn’t know much of what happened, but as soon as he got to the emergency room and was ushered to the pre-counseling room, he knew it wasn’t good.
“When I walked in, the doctor was sitting down with my wife’s parents and going over what had happened. That’s when he let us know that June didn’t make it and they weren’t able to save my son.”
Erik had little time to process as he had to get to Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, where his daughter had been taken by ambulance. When he got to the other hospital and found out that Faith had survived, he was thankful, but he began to break down as the weight of all that happened started to sink in.
Two days after the accident was a day when Erik would normally lead his student ministry. The regular meeting was canceled, but Erik agreed to let the middle schoolers and high schoolers come over to his house.
“We were all sharing memories of June and just trying to process a little bit as a unit because June was very involved in the student ministry,” Erik said. One of the girls, whose father was a fireman at the same fire department as Matthew, said, “We need to remember Matthew in our prayers, too, because he’s hurting and he’s struggling.”
In that moment, Erik was reminded that there was somebody else involved in the accident and that he wasn’t the only one hurting. He realized that this was an opportunity for him to put into practice the forgiveness he preached. Although he was heartbroken by the loss of his wife and son and preparing for life as a widower and single father, Erik decided not to press any charges against Matthew, but instead, chose to forgive him.
Due to legal proceedings, the men were not allowed to communicate until the case was closed. It wasn’t until the day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, in a grocery store parking lot, that they connected, and a life-changing conversation took place.
“I was at the grocery store actually buying Erik a card, and I was going to run it by his house and drop it in his mailbox,” Matthew said. “I was about to leave, and I look up, and I see Erik walking into the grocery store.”
From inside the store, Erik noticed Matthew. “He was just kind of standing outside of his truck, and tears were coming down his face. So I just walked up and gave him a hug.
“I didn’t want him to let the accident define him,” Erik said. “I wanted him to know that God’s got a bigger plan than this. I didn’t want him to let this hold him back or be baggage that he carried the rest of his life.
“So I told him, ‘Man, I forgive you. I’m not hanging on to anger. I’m not; there’s no resentment here. It was an accident. I don’t want you to feel any burden on my behalf.’”
After about two hours talking in the parking lot, Erik told Matthew, “You might think I’m crazy, but I feel like I’m supposed to walk with you through life.”
Matthew responded, “That’s exactly the way I feel. I’d like to stay connected with you.”
From that moment on—for more than 10 years now—the two men have remained friends. They get together several times a year and they try to talk at least once a month. The forgiveness that Erik extended to Matthew formed the foundation of a friendship that has changed both their lives.
“It gave me a different perspective and a different purpose,” Matthew said. “For those two years I wore around guilt, but when I finally had a chance to talk to Erik and let him know that I was sorry, and to then have him embrace me and tell me that he forgave me, it completely flipped my life around. It flipped my purpose, it flipped my spirituality, it flipped everything. Just seeing Erik and how he’s handled this and how he’s become a friend to me, it’s what I want to be able to give back to other people. Let them know that there’s nothing that they can do wrong that can’t be forgiven.”
As this act of forgiveness changed Matthew’s life, it deeply impacted Erik’s as well. “For me,” he said, “it was an opportunity for the event to not be the end. Yes, I lost June and my son, but it wasn’t a period. It was a comma, and that allowed God to begin and continue to do good through it.”
Though it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, Erik chose to obey God’s Word, which says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
“Forgiven people forgive people,” Erik says. “That’s just true. There are no caveats. There are no ifs, ands or buts. As a Christian, I’ve received forgiveness; I need to also forgive. … You’ve got to begin to live it out. It is a process. There are days where you’ve got to wake up and just remind yourself, I’m forgiven and I forgive. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling. You don’t have to feel like it. It’s a process of faithfully living out what God has firmly told us to do in His Word, but there’s a moment where you’ve got to make a decision, and you’ve got to surrender and say ‘I’m going to do it God’s way.’”
Both men agree that their friendship is a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to His children. “All along the way continuing to see good, continuing to see growth, continuing to see this friendship develop and God continuing to do a good work, it reminds you of how He can make beautiful things from your ashes and He can restore. He can bring new life,” Erik said. “It doesn’t have to be a period. It can be a comma, and if we allow it to be, God takes over and does what only He can do.”