The Tablet - 7 January 2012

Page 13

Lawrence case verdict

CONOR TAAFFE

‘You are loved, Stephen’

The conviction this week of two racists for the killing of Stephen Lawrence comes 18 years after the schoolboy was knifed in south-east London. The case had profound consequences for race relations and policing in Britain. But at its heart lay the loss of a young man and his violent death. Here, the then advertising manager of The Tablet recalls how he and his wife encountered Stephen just after he was attacked, and sought to comfort him as he lay dying

Afew hours after my wife, Louise, and I walked down Well Hall Road in Eltham, south-east London, on the way home from our honeymoon in 1992, an Asian teenager, Rohit Duggal, was stabbed to death in a racist attack on the same street. Some 10 months into our new life together, on 22 April 1993, Louise and I were walking down the same road after a prayer meeting when we witnessed the death of Stephen Lawrence, the victim of another racist attack. We saw Stephen running along the pavement with his hand to his chest. His friend, Duwayne Brooks, was ahead, urging him to come on, and looking back towards Well Hall roundabout. Then Stephen crashed to the ground, and we went to be at his side, praying for him, as he breathed his last. It was the first time that I had ever been present at someone’s death.

Our first child was born on 20 March 1998, and six days later I was giving evidence to the judicial inquiry ordered by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and chaired by Sir William Macpherson, into matters arising from Stephen’s death. New life and death; death and new life. It was as though, for Louise and myself, God was emphasising their interrelation.

Now after the guilty verdict, I don’t rejoice. What I would love more than anything else is for those convicted to come to believe in God, to receive his forgiveness: that’s what I would long for. I don’t rejoice in punishment, I would rejoice in changed lives, in learnt lessons, in conversion, in good. But at the same time, justice is justice, God is just as well as forgiving.

Stephen shared his name with that of the first Christian martyr. When I first saw him running in the direction of Woolwich, I sensed immediately that something had happened and thought to myself that he might have been involved in a fight, that he might have been partly to blame for provoking some aggression. I later learnt that Stephen had done nothing at all to provoke the attack, other than bearing a black skin. He was innocent, as Stephen’s namesake was innocent. While I was crouching down beside him, I saw a wide flow of thickened blood. The image of that red blood on the grey concrete paving stones has stayed with me, and the thought that later kept coming back to my mind is that Jesus freely chose to spill his blood for us. Anyone in their right mind would flee from attack, as Stephen did – too late. But Jesus chose to undergo it. And if it is true that love motivated Jesus, then what an amazing, fearless and intense love he must have for each one of us. Suffering is the most powerful vehicle for the expression of love, and the ultimate suffering is the pain of wounds that lead to death itself. “No greater love has a man than that he die to save his friends.”

Stephen was accompanied by the prayers of fellow Christians in his dying moments – not only from Louise and myself but, incredibly, from an off-duty policeman and his wife who were returning home from another prayer meeting. In those last moments, Louise whispered into Stephen’s ear, “You are loved”, words that the Christian songwriter Garth Hewitt later set to music.

Stephen died just across the road from the

Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered by a racist gang in Eltham, south-east London, in 1993

Conor Taaffe during an interview for the Panorama series in 2006

Catholic Church of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More, and, after witnessing his death, Louise and I went back to the prayer meeting where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and a healing service was about to begin, led by my father-in-law, now a deacon. I explained to him what had happened and the whole prayer meeting brought the situation before God, praying in tongues and interceding for Stephen “in sighs that cannot be put into words”, while Louise and I were prayed over with the laying on of hands. There, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, it was as if Stephen’s death was joined through prayer to that of Christ.

I had a strong sense of how much Stephen was loved, as Louise has said. Perhaps because Stephen had “the gift of a black skin” – in the words of the black Bishop of Croydon at one of many services at the site of the murder – we were being reminded how much God loves people, all people, all races, all colours.

God himself made the sacrifice that he stopped short of asking Abraham to make: he gave the only Son he had, knowing he would die at our hands. I was told that, on a television programme one Sunday morning, Stephen’s father, Neville, echoed this language, when he spoke of his son’s death as a “sacrifice”. The death of God’s Son was fruitful. The death of the first martyr, Stephen, was fruitful too, for “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Mr and Mrs Lawrence, I believe the death of your son, your Stephen, will also bear fruit, even if only in ways that we cannot yet see.

■ A version of this article first appeared in The Tablet on 25 April 1998.

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