Bess’ mother, Helen Klassen was beat, striped, raped, strangled and shot 4 times in their rural home in Elkhart, Indiana while her three sisters and she were at school and her father was out of state. The murder happened on March 14, 1969, before DNA testing was a reality. There was never a conviction. At thirteen years old, Bess learned that her home and community were not safe, and neither was it safe to be a woman.
“I had to really deal with my thoughts about what to do with a person who had committed an atrocity. Someone who made me feel wretched and unsafe.” She imagined her mother’s murderer being nearly inhuman.
In 2005, she learned of the Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing and joined them in Texas. Bess met for the first time, peers who had lost a loved one to murder and some who had forgiven the murderer. By publicly telling her story, she was able to expose and release all the ugly feelings of fear and shame that had filled the hidden spaces of her being, and she forgave herself for her failures. She believes that we are all instruments in healing the hatred in this world and that we will never do it with violence (the death penalty), but only by eradicating hunger, poverty and disease and by reaching out again and again in love to our enemies. Politicians tell us that the death penalty must be reserved for the worst of the worst. Through the Journey, Bess learned that in reality, the death penalty is reserved for the poorest of the poor. And that many that have been placed on Death Row have been innocent.
In 2008, Bess took a year’s leave of absence from her teaching job as an art teacher and spoke to hundreds of groups around the country about abolition of the death penalty and forgiveness. She also put out a CD of original music called Beauty So Close, a collection of songs of hope.
“The last thing my mother would have wanted would be for an act of violence to be committed in her name.”