Twenty-five years ago, the Oklahoma City bombing became the worst act of terrorism on American soil. Yet out of this horrible tragedy, a story has emerged of remarkable redemption and reconciliation. Sean and Scott interview Jeanne Bishop, the author of a new book that chronicles the road to reconciliation of two unlikely fathers: Bill McVeigh (father of Timothy McVeigh) and Bud Welch (father of one of the victims). This is a moving podcast you will not want to miss.
More About Our Guest
Jeanne Bishop is a public defender and human rights advocate, who has written for online publications including the Huffington Post and CNN.com, magazines, newspapers, law journals and academic books. She has appeared in TEDx talks and several documentary films. She lives in Chicago's North Shore with her two sons.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast. Think biblically conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics here at Talbot school of Theology, Biola university.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot school of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I am really excited to introduce our listeners to our guest today. Jeanne Bishop has written a fascinating account of an incredible story. Some of our listeners, may not have been aware of this at the time, but 20 roughly 25 years ago, the most horrific act of domestic terrorism, occurred in the United States. When Timothy McVeigh engineered a bombing of the Oklahoma city federal building, killing 178 innocent people. Gene Bishop in her book, Grace from the Rubble, subtitled, two fathers' road to reconciliation after the Oklahoma city bombing. Is the story of Timothy McVeigh's father, Bill McVeigh, and Bud Welch, who is the father of one of the young women killed in the bombing, Julie Welch. Is the story of how they got together, and of the friendship that developed, the reconciliation that developed between them. Jeanne, thanks so much for coming on with us. Your book is just, is this incredibly compelling story, that I am so looking forward to our listeners being able to hear from you, about this story. So thanks for coming on with us.
Jeanne Bishop: Oh, thank you so much. I'm so delighted to be with you.
Scott Rae: No, this is, such a remarkable story. Maybe the best place to start was to tell our listeners a bit. How did you get involved with the McVeigh and the Welch families?
Jeanne Bishop: Well, I had a murder in my own family. My younger sister, Nancy, was killed at the age of 25 along with her husband Richard, who was 29. And Nancy was three months pregnant with what would've been her first child at the time, that she was shot to death. And so, and I grew up in Oklahoma city. And so it was in the course of the work that I did in the wake of those, murders that led me to meet first by Bud Welch, and then through Bud to meet Bill McVeigh. Bud as a gas station owner in Oklahoma city. And Bill McVeigh is a retired auto parts worker, factory worker who lives outside Buffalo, New York. And it was Bud that reached out to Bill and said that he'd be hearing from me because I'd heard about this story, this incredible story of compassion and mercy and forgiveness. And I so wanted to tell that story because it kind of dovetailed with my own story. I'd forgiven the who murdered my family members and I've reconciled with him.
Scott Rae: So tell us a little bit about how Bill McVeigh and Bud Welch, came to connect with each other. And, and what, that meeting was like when they sat down together for the first time.
Jeanne Bishop: Yeah. So, Bud his only daughter, Julie Welch as you said, was murdered in the bombing. And at first he was just full of hate, and wanted Timothy McVeigh dead. And was just consumed with grief and rage, and it was killing him. It was just killing him inside. And so over time he realized that what he needed to do was to forgive, to lay that burden of hatred down. He tried to reach out to Tim McVeigh himself, to do that and wasn't able to meet with him. And so instead Bud reached out to Bill McVeigh, to have a meeting with him.
Jeanne Bishop: And the way he did that, Bud and Bill are both Catholics. And bud is a Catholic in Oklahoma, where there are relatively few compared to Buffalo, New York. And so he figured if he reached out to any Catholic in Buffalo, they'd be able to set them up with, Bill McVeigh. So he reached out to this nun, the sister [Roslyn] . Roslyn [Kowski 00:04:17], which is this amazing woman who is a chaplain at Attica prison. She runs a re-entry house for returning citizens from prison. And when Bud reached out to her, she reached out to find Bill McVeigh through his Catholic parish. And she put them together. She set up the meeting, she drove Bud out to Bill's house.
Scott Rae: What, what, what was that meeting like? If you could have been a fly on the wall there. The emotion that must have been a part of that had to just be off the charts. What was that like when they sat down together for the first time?
Jeanne Bishop: It started out with them both being so nervous, there was so much at stake there. They had never met. They didn't know what the other would be like, or how it would go.
Scott Rae: And just to be clear about this, this was while, Tim was on trial. Correct?
Jeanne Bishop: He had been convicted already at trial.
Scott Rae: He had been convicted and was awaiting, sentencing.
Jeanne Bishop: Yeah, no, he had been sentenced to death. So he had been sentenced but was awaiting execution.
Scott Rae: I see.
Jeanne Bishop: So this is at a time when you have a father who's lost a child, reaching out to a father who was about to lose a child. And so Bud went there with a great deal of trepidation, not afraid to meet Bill so much as, just not knowing how he'd feel, going to the house where Timothy had grown up as a boy. That was the house he grew up in. He would've crossed that threshold a thousand times. And Bill was nervous because he's a very shy man to begin with. He's never lived anywhere outside of this five mile radius of Pendleton and Lockport, New York, outside of Buffalo, except for his two years of service in the army.
Jeanne Bishop: And so he's well known and well loved in his town, Bill McVeigh, the father. But, it's not so easy for him to meet or speak to strangers, especially as the father of the nation's worst domestic mass murderer in history. So he was nervous. And so when Bill and Bud first met, on the doorstep, the first thing Bill said to Bud is, "I'm shy, I don't talk very much." And both kind of laughed in his Oklahoma twang said, "Well, I talk too much, so we'll be fine." Which is really true because, I write it the book that Bud can start a story, and meander like a road, a dirt road in a Oklahoma Prairie. So they walked together and in Bill's backyard garden, Bill's an avid gardener and when I say garden, the size of a hockey rink. And he grows corn, and potatoes, and lettuce, and beans, and peas. And he gives it all away to people who need it.
Jeanne Bishop: He gives it to his neighbors, and his friends, and to people who have their grandchildren's staying with them because the parents are, in jail, or fell by the opioid crisis. And so they walked, Bud said, "Can I see your garden? I heard you have a beautiful garden." And it was his way of kind of breaking the ice. And out there in the back, it was Bill who really opened up first in honesty and said, "You know, Bud can you cry? So after I have so much to cry about, I've tried to cry, just can't." And Bud said back to him. "Yes, Bill, I can. I can cry." And they went back and sat at Bill's kitchen table for hours, and found out all these things they had in common. These two men that should be enemies, they're both Irish Catholic families, grew up on farms, went to Catholic schools all the way through, never went to college.
Jeanne Bishop: Both working men have three kids each. I mean they're almost born around exactly the same time. Both men just turned 80 this year. And they found that common ground of fathers. And it was in the course of that, that Bill finally was able to cry. And it was just such a healing thing for both of them. And Bud said he cried then all the way back, in the car back to, the halfway house with a sister Ros, because he said, he never felt closer to God than in that moment.
Sean McDowell: Was this a meeting that they met once, and put this behind him so to speak, or do they have a continuing relationship even today?
Jeanne Bishop: Oh no, it's an ongoing relationship. When Bud, goes back, in that area to speak or something. He will stop in to see Bill. When Tim's execution was looming, and the date was getting closer. Bud was calling him just about every week to see how Bill was doing, how he's holding up. When there was a plane crash on near where Bill lived, that killed a bunch of people Bud called him, just to make sure he was okay.
Sean McDowell: Hmm, how do they each react to the trial and execution of Timothy McVeigh?
Jeanne Bishop: Oh Gosh. Bud didn't really want to go to much of the trial, and so he didn't. He was really focused on trying to say in as many ways in as many places as he can, that the killing another man's child was not going to heal him. Was not going to bring back Julie Marie Welch, was not going to do anything but take a caged man out of his cage, and snuff out his life. And that could not possibly heal Bud's broken heart over the loss of his daughter.
Jeanne Bishop: For Bill, I think the trial was absolutely excruciating. Because Bill, was absolutely stunned at what his son had done, was so apologetic to the victims and everyone who suffered from the bombing. And had cooperated with the FBI during the entire investigation. But, never disavowed Tim as his son. And he said, "I will never understand what he did, but he is my son and I will always love him, and I don't want him to die." And so it was very hard for him to be in public, surrounded by, so much press attention, from all over the world. Surrounded by so many people that had been so wounded by what his son had done. And yet to try to speak for his son out of love.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Jeanne, one of the most striking things that I read in the book was, how you describe Bud Welch who became this really passionate opponent of the death penalty, in my view. So I think just the opposite of what I think most people would think. You recount a number of places where he spoke out really forcefully against the death penalty for Tim. Why do you think he became such an outspoken opponent, such a passionate opponent of the death penalty?
Jeanne Bishop: I think it started at first with, realizing the truth of what his gas station customers were saying to him. Because he was drinking too much, he was smoking way too much. He was just filled with rage and hate, and his customers at the station were saying, "Bud you're killing yourself." And he'd say that to them. "The sooner I die, that's okay. Sooner I die, the sooner I'll see my daughter Julian in heaven." But he started realizing the truth of that I think. And then he started looking into, well why had Timothy McVeigh done this? And it was all about retaliation and revenge. That's what he discovered. The date, the Timothy McVeigh chose to do this horrific act, April 19th, 1995, was the two year anniversary of this conflagration during an FBI, ATF standoff in Waco, Texas with a cult called the Branch Davidians led by this charismatic leader named David Koresh. Who was wanted on weapons violations.
Jeanne Bishop: And after a 51 day standoff, the FBI, the ATF, decided they'd had enough of the siege, and they lobbed tear gas into the compound. It caught fire. And 76 people were killed, including a lot of women and children. And so Timothy McVeigh took that as his cue, that there needed to be some retaliation and revenge, against the federal government to do that. And so he scouted out a lot of different federal buildings before he picked the one in Oklahoma city, to set off his bomb. And so when Bud looked at that and thought, "Well, if that's his reason, revenge, why does the death penalty accept retaliation and revenge? And where will it end? This tit for tat blood shed has to stop somewhere, it's going to stop with me.
Scott Rae: One other thing just, on that point. I think for each of the dads here, how big an impact did their Christian faith have say on Bud Welch's desire to forgive, and just on their attempt at reconciliation?
Jeanne Bishop: I think it had a huge part of it. It's built into these words that they would pray every Sunday at mass. Every time I've gone to visit Bill McVeigh, it's been over a weekend, and we always go to church together to his Catholic church, Good Shepherd in Lockport, and you say these words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." That's the call of Christ to forgive. Then these men would have grown up memorizing that scripture, from the gospels where Peter says to Jesus, "How many times do I have to forgive this brother of mine? Is seven times enough? And then I can say, I'm done. I'm through with you. We're finished." And Jesus said, "No, 70 times seven."
Jeanne Bishop: And they would know the story in John chapter eight where, a woman is caught in the act of adultery, and she's brought before Jesus, at the temple. And those people with the stones in their hands, are surrounding her and saying, "The law of Moses said this woman should be executed. What do you say?" And Christ said, "Let he who is without sin, among you cast the first stone." In other words, not that she doesn't deserve to die, but that we don't deserve to kill her. It had everything to do with, why Bud had this change of heart from hate to, the impetus to forgiveness and reconciliation.
Sean McDowell: Are you aware of other people who've approached Bill McVeigh through this? Is Bud the only one you know of that offered forgiveness? How does this stand out compared to some of the other families?
Jeanne Bishop: Bud is the only one who has been invited to Bill's home. Bud is the only one he stayed in touch with. I believe there was one other family member that had wanted to meet with Bill and it was more about, there was this conspiracy theory floated that maybe there were other people involved or something. And I think that it was more of them wanting to know if he knew anything about that. And of course he didn't. He knew absolutely nothing of his son's actions during that time. So Bud is unique in this, friendship in this reconciliation.
Scott Rae: That's very interesting that he's the only one that we know of who reached out to Bill McVeigh.
Jeanne Bishop: No, it's interesting. I grew up in Oklahoma city, and I'm planning to go back there and for this 25th anniversary. I get to speak at my school, and at church and, I'm so thrilled to, do that just when the book is coming out, because my heart really is going to be enough Oklahoma city that day. And it's so interesting this veteran journalist from there, Linda Cavanaugh had called me. And said that she's interviewing all these people for a retrospective, and they're all these victims. Family members are expressing so much sympathy and love for Bill McVeigh. Timothy McVeigh's mother is dead. She died years ago. So it's really just Bill. As a parent who's left and I don't think he even realizes, that there isn't any hate for him there. But I invited Bill once to go with me to Oklahoma city, and he shook his head absolutely not. And he said, "I don't have a right to go there."
Scott Rae: Wow. That's quite a statement. Jeanne, you described, your own loss with your sister. Given the tragedy you've experienced, how has the story of Bill McVeigh, and Bud Welch's friendship and reconciliation, how has that impacted you personally? Just as you processed your own, grief and reconciliation over the years.
Jeanne Bishop: Been so instructive when you think about everything that divides us. People talk so much now about, what a divided nation we've become. Politically, culturally, economically, geographically, you name it. And yet these two men who should have been so divided by this tragedy, teach me that if you sit down with someone, if you put aside your fears, if you reach out, and you sit down with someone, and talk with them, you find all this common ground, you discover all these things that connect you, that bind you. I think they are such a shining light for all of us in that regard.
Sean McDowell: What would you say to families who have lost sons or daughters to senseless violence, like you have, and the Welch's have experienced, and maybe are kind of on the other side of this and haven't been able to quite process it yet? What encouragement or just words would you share with them? Based on where you're at in your life right now, and really what you've experienced?
Jeanne Bishop: First of all, I would say to them that my heart goes out to you in your loss. No one can ever say to another, "Oh, I understand how you feel." Because I don't. I cannot imagine losing a child. Especially, Bud lost his only daughter, and his baby. She was his youngest child, and Bill lost his only son. And I can't imagine, anyone else's loss. But I can say that what I've learned from Bud and Bill, and what I've learned from my own journey with my sister is that, love never dies, and that they are with God. They are in the arms of God's safe. And that their spirit lives on in every single thing that we do in their name and their memory, to honor them, and this gift of life that they no longer get to enjoy, but we do.
Jeanne Bishop: When Nancy was murdered, that was the last waste of breath I took. I thought, I have no time to be afraid, to lack courage. To not do, what I think God is calling me to do. And I would just say that, everyone goes on their own timeline of healing and discovery on this journey. But I would just encourage, them that there is this wonderful thing that awaits, when you find a way to live your life in a way that honors, and remembers them every day.
Scott Rae: So Jean, if I could follow up on that Sean's question, just briefly, I think our listeners would be very interested to hear a little bit more about your story, of how you connected with your sister's killer. And an experienced forgiveness and reconciliation with that person. How did all that come about?
Jeanne Bishop: The killer wasn't arrested in my sister's murder for six months. And when he was arrested, it was the biggest shock in the world. It was a 16 year old boy who lived only a few blocks from them. He went to the big public high school in Winnetka, Illinois where I live now. And my younger son, Steven, is 16 years old, and he's at a student at New Trier high school, that same high school. And my sister Nancy graduated from that same high school. And so it was such a shock that this skinny 16 year old boy, could have picked up a 357 Magnum revolver and shot them to death. And so when he was convicted of the crime, he, got the mandatory sentence that you got at the time in Illinois, and that's life in prison without the possibility of parole. Meaning you'd go into prison, and you'd die there.
Scott Rae: Wow. For a 16 year old.
Jeanne Bishop: And for 16 boy, the age of my son. And at first I was fine with that. I thought, you know what? I'm leading you to God. I'm going to forgive you in my own mind and heart. I didn't reach out to him at all, to tell him I've forgiven him. Because I figured he hadn't asked for it, and he didn't deserve it. And I was just going to go forward in my life honoring Nancy, and Richard, and their baby and, trying to do all the good that I could do in their memory. But then I was really convicted to reach out, and reconcile with him. And I did that because I was given a book by this wonderful Southern Baptist author, Pastor Randall O'Brian, that said that, it's the obligation of every Christian man and woman, or woman to try to reconcile with those who robbed them.
Jeanne Bishop: And when I talked with Randall about that, to just say, "What would that even look like, with this remorseless killer?" He said to me, "It would look like Jesus on the cross." And I started crying when he said that because, I knew what that meant. Our Lord was on the cross dying, and he was praying for the people who are killing him. "Father forgive them, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." And so I was so convicted because I never once prayed, for this 16 year old who killed my family members. Called myself a Christian, but never ever prayed for him. And so I needed to do that. I started praying for him. I wrote to him and I said, "I forgave you a long time ago, never told you, and that was wrong, and I'm sorry. And I've waited all this time for you to apologize to me. I'm going to go first. I'm sorry, and I'll come see you if you want me to, and we'll talk."
Jeanne Bishop: And he wrote back right away, 15 page letter, front and back expressing great remorse for what he did. Confessing to the crime for the first time. Saying he wished he could take their place in the grave, if they could come out. He was so sorry. And I did go see him, and it's been just so incredibly healing for both of us, I think.
Scott Rae: It'd be quite an understatement to say that he was receptive to your, offer of forgiveness.
Jeanne Bishop: Oh, he would have reached out to me long ago, but he was worried that getting a letter with his name, on the top left hand corner on the envelope, would be traumatic for me. And it wasn't until, I expressed my willingness to speak with him, that he immediately wrote back to me. He'd be in his mid forties now. My sister was killed 30 years ago, this April 7th. It was the night before Palm Sunday. And so every lent, where we go through this journey from, the horror of good Friday, into the joy of the resurrection of Easter. It's such a journey.
Sean McDowell: You have personally experienced this with your sister, evil in a pretty powerful way. And then writing this story and researching this obviously, seeing it face to face, so to speak. And yet you still believe. Why do you still believe, and what would your response be to people who look at the world and say, "In this level of evil, I just can't believe there's a good guy."
Jeanne Bishop: God loves us so much. And when my sister was murdered, my first reaction was, "Oh, I understand freewill. I understand that people are not puppets, that we are given this choice to do good or evil." And I wondered just in my aching heart, "God, where were you?" Nancy was a Christian. She would have been praying from the minute she walked through that door and saw that gun pointed at her. But it was a week later, that the police released to us a detail from the crime scene they hadn't told us. And that is before Nancy died. She dragged herself over to where her husband's body lay on that basement floor, where he was already dead. And in her dying moment, she dipped her finger in her own blood, and she drew next to him the shape of a heart, and the letter U. Love U.
Jeanne Bishop: And when I heard that, I started crying because I thought, what but the presence of a loving, and benevolent God, could possibly explain how she would have the serenity, the love, the capacity to do something like that. And that taught me that love has the last word on our lives, not evil. Of course, the killing of 168 people in Oklahoma city in one careless bombing, and three unborn children. Three of the women who were killed in the bombing were pregnant, with babies they had already named. So in my mind, 171 people were killed that day. God was there. God was there with each of them. God is present with all of the loved ones wanting to bind up those wounds, and to redeem their suffering. And to express the love and forgiveness that God has for us and for the whole world.
Scott Rae: Wow. I think that's so powerful, Jeanne. I mean, Sean and I are about to lose it here, just listening to that. I think you've answered the question that you raise in the epilogue of your book, which is how do we respond? How do we respond to evil? You just answered that really eloquently. What a powerful story. I would encourage our listeners to be aware of the 25th anniversary, of the Oklahoma city bombing that will be coming up in April of 2020. And to especially look for the book Jeanne Bishop entitled Grace from the Rubble, subtitled, two fathers' road to reconciliation after the Oklahoma city bombing. Jeanne you have done a great work here. This is just, such a compelling story, and we are so grateful for you to come on with us. Not only to talk about the the McVeigh and Welch families, but about your own experience, and how their story impacted you so powerfully. So this has just been a rich time. Thank you so much for coming on with us, and all the best as you go back to Oklahoma city, to participate in this 25th anniversary.
Jeanne Bishop: Well, thank you so much. What a pleasure.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast. Think biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Jeanne Bishop and her book, Grace from the Rubble, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/think biblically. That's biola.edu/think biblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and be sure to share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.