Corruption, Anguish, God

Former Illinois governor George Ryan received this month a sentence of 6 1/2 years in prison for racketeering, lying to the FBI and mail fraud. But there’s much more to that story, which begins with incredible anguish.

On a November day 12 years ago, Baptist pastor Scott Willis, his wife Janet and their six young children — they also had three older ones — rode in a minivan on Interstate 94. A scrap of metal fell off a truck just ahead of them. Their minivan ran over the steel piece. It punctured the gas tank, which exploded. All six of the children died. The parents survived.

The Willises could have spent the rest of their lives looping the "what if" tape. They fought deep depression and thoughts of suicide, but they could also have hated God. "The depth of pain is indescribable," Scott later said. "We’re ordinary people. But what’s the point of learning all the things about living the Christian life if when the need arises we don’t live it?"

So Scott told Janet as their grieving began, "This is what God has prepared us for." Their congregation had been memorizing Psalm 34. Janet, as she saw her children’s charred bodies moved to an ambulance, recited part of it: that even though the righteous face many afflictions, "I will bless the Lord at all times."

Scott told journalists attracted by anguish that "God knows all of history and time from its beginning to its end. What happened to us wasn’t an accident. God is never taken by surprise. God had a purpose for it, probably many purposes."

The question of God’s sovereignty gripped Scott. He thought about the "what ifs," but "refused to dwell there." He refused to limit either God’s authority or God’s goodness. He and his wife consoled themselves with thoughts of their children in heaven, but they had no expectation of any earthly good resulting from their horror. Then a series of strange events unfolded.

It turned out that the driver of the truck should never have received his commercial driving license — and that he only did so because Illinois state employees gave such licenses to unqualified applicants in return for bribes and campaign contributions. The recipient of those contributions, Secretary of State George Ryan, became governor in 1999.

Just before leaving office Ryan won a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by commuting the sentences of all 156 death row inmates in Illinois prisons. But the truth of his own sin came out. Last week Ryan was sentenced, and although 6 1/2 years doesn’t seem enough for actions that led to the death of at least six children, maybe other officials will think twice about lies that could cost lives.

But there’s more to the story. Since the offense was governmental and the damage monumental, years of court battles finally resulted in the Willises and their lawyers receiving $100 million from the state of Illinois. The Willises used their share to fund a family philanthropy they started, the Khesed Foundation — "khesed" is the Hebrew word for mercy. Their charity will save or transform lives.

There’s more. Janet Willis wrote and illustrated a lovely book, "A Dad’s Delight," that movingly tells of an episode involving baseball, mercy and one son who died, Hank. His name and those of his other brothers and sisters, living and dead, are on a scorecard-like dedication page. The three surviving, older children have fruitfully multiplied, giving Scott and Janet Willis 25 grandchildren.

These recent chapters of the story, like the last chapter of the biblical book of Job, do not compensate for the death of children and the anguish that will never fully depart. But there’s a lesson about mankind: In the Willises’ words, "corruption has consequences; in this case they were severe." And a lesson about God: "We live with a God-promised hope in Jesus Christ."