‘Deeply religious man’ made a promise to God

Such a moving story.

Such a big ghost.

That was my immediate reaction upon reading an Associated Press feature with this headline:

Family promises a life for son in vegetative state

The top of the story is absolutely gripping:

MURRIETA, Calif. (AP) — Paul Cortez can remember the night 31 years ago as clearly as if it was last week. He had walked into the pediatric intensive care unit of Riverside County Regional Medical Center to find his 7-year-old son, Mikey, barely clinging to life.

Bandages were covering his little body, seemingly from head to toe. Wires and tubes attached to machines were keeping him alive. Doctors told Cortez that Mikey might not make it. A drunken driver had smashed into the car carrying the boy and relatives, sending four of them, including his mother, brother and sister, to other hospitals. Four other relatives, including Mikey’s oldest brother, were dead.

Not knowing what to do, Paul Cortez got down on his knees and, with Mikey’s hand in his, made a promise to God: If his son somehow survived, whatever the condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

It felt strange at first because, although he is a deeply religious man, Cortez had never before asked for any favors from heaven.

“But he was our son,” he recalled.

Mikey would never walk or talk again, but that didn’t matter to his family. For the next 31 years, they would raise him at home, including him in every activity they could. From holidays to family vacations to high school football games, they were by his side until his death last month.

So what we have here is an incredible human drama involving a “deeply religious man” who made a promise to God. Religion angle, anyone?

Unfortunately, the story fails to explore at all the role of faith in this family’s life — outside of those vague mentions about religion and God.

What does “deeply religious” mean in this case? Does the family belong to a church? Do they have a church family? If so, did that church family help support the Cortezes and care for Mikey? These all seem like relevant questions.

I Googled a few key terms from the story and added “faith” to see if any other media had covered that angle. Interestingly enough, I came across a different version of the AP story that did, in fact, hint that the Cortezes are Christians, including this mention:

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For some reason, someone forgave someone else

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If someone took your child’s life, would you forgive the killer?

Renee Napier did.

But why?

That’s the giant unanswered question — the ghost — in a recent CBS News report:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Not many convicts consider themselves blessed, but Eric Smallridge does, and for good reason. He’s getting out of prison — way early.

“It’s going to be like being on borrowed time, because I know I should still be in prison, because the justice system said I should still be in prison,” Eric says.

In 2003, Eric, of Tallahassee, Fla., was found guilty of two counts of DUI manslaughter. While driving at twice the legal limit for alcohol, he hit a car carrying Lisa Dickson and Meagan Napier, both 20, killing both girls instantly. He got 22 years for the crime, which sounded just about right to Renee Napier, Meagan’s mom.

“I felt like our system had served us well and justice had been served. I definitely felt that,” Renee says.

But a few years later, a woman came forward and asked the judge to reduce Eric’s sentence by half. She claimed Eric was truly sorry for what he’d done and deserved leniency. The judge obliged — partly because of what she said, but mostly because of who she was.

Keep reading, and Napier speaks to her change of heart:

“I could hate him forever and the world would tell me that I have a right to do that,” Renee says. “It’s not going to do me any good, and it’s not going to do him any good. I would grow old and bitter and angry and hateful. … In my opinion, forgiveness is the only way to heal.”

She says it did heal her — almost as much as it healed him.

“It was like a burden,” he says. “It was a weight off my chest. I no longer had to hide behind this facade.”

Here at GetReligion, we define holy ghosts as “facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith.” Often, these facts don’t show up in a story, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. In the case of the CBS News story, I couldn’t help but think that there might be more to the story than reported. More precisely, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps, religious faith played a role in Napier’s decision to forgive.

So I checked LexisNexis and did a Google search to see if I could find any more details.

I found a recent Tennessean story that mentioned Napier inspiring the song “Forgiveness” (video above) on contemporary Christian singer Matthew West’s new album. However, that story did not delve into Napier’s faith (or lack thereof).

But then I found a 2011 blog post by a Baptist pastor in Florida that did some GetReligion-style ghostbusting on Napier:

I had Renee’s email address from the Sheriff’s office, so I wrote her an email explaining that we were so proud to host her, but asking about this concept of forgiveness. I mentioned that as believers, we understand forgiveness (or at least say we do) and that I have preached about the revolutionary power of it. I asked if she had a faith background and wondered if that led her to be able to promote forgiveness in such a way.

It wasn’t long before my phone rang. Renee had called me. She said she was writing an email response and decided that a phone call would be better. We talked for quite some time and she shared how her faith in Jesus Christ was what enabled and empowered her to forgive Eric. I was so encouraged and overwhelmed by this. To hear a mother that had lost one of her children in such a way offer true forgiveness was incredible.

It’s too bad that CBS News didn’t think to ask the same highly relevant question.