Early one morning in Dacula, Ga., Matt Swatzell was driving home from a 24-hour shift as a firefighter and EMS and had only 30 minutes of sleep. He was less than four miles from his home on October 2, 2006 when he suddenly heard what he calls “the most God awful sound I’ve ever heard.”
Swatzell, then 20, realized he had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed. When he got out of the car, he saw the car of 30-year old June Fitzgerald. She was pregnant and with her then 19-month-old daughter Faith. Faith survived the crash but her mother and unborn sibling passed away.
June’s husband, Erik Fitzgerald, a full-time pastor, grieved the loss of his wife and child with close family and friends, including young people from his student ministry. One young girl told him she couldn’t help but think of how the driver of the car was feeling. He told her she was right, and that they should all pray for him. It was his opportunity to practice the forgiveness he had preached so many times before.
“You forgive as you’ve been forgiven,” said Fitzgerald, referencing a Bible verse. “It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”
Fitzgerald's forgiveness has created a friendship now six years strong. The men stayed connected by meeting at least once every two weeks, attending church together and eating meals at the Waffle House and other restaurants, just the two of them.
“We recognized that when we first started meeting it was unusual. We knew it was God,” said Fitzgerald, now 38. Their friendship was captured in a video produced by NewSpring Church that was shot in 2011, but is going viral again online, collecting hundreds of thousands of views a day.
To start, Fitzgerald extended his forgiveness to Swatzell's sentencing: As a county officer, he was facing a felony and harsh time. But Fitzgerald pleaded for a lesser sentence.
“I didn’t see why this accident and tragedy needed to ruin any more lives,” said Fitzgerald. Swatzell paid a fine and did community service.
Swatzell expected hate from Fitzgerald, but not so much love. He wanted to thank him for all he had done but legally couldn’t speak with him during the two-year criminal investigation.
The day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, Swatzell was in the parking lot of a grocery store after buying a greeting card to send to Fitzgerald. Just about to turn on his engine, he saw Fitzgerald walking into the same grocery store.
After an introduction, Fitzgerald told Swatzell, “I have a desire to want to be in your life.”
“Part of the tug I felt and draw to Matthew was he was a good guy. He wasn’t a convict or on drugs. He was just a guy who got off a shift,” said Fitzgerald. “I felt it was my responsibility to encourage him and see the big picture.”
“I can honestly say that without this friendship I don’t know where I’d be,” said Swatzell, now 27.
Fitzgerald has watched Swatzell become a family man and helped him raise himself from the abyss of guilt.
Though Swatzell had Fitzgerald’s forgiveness he quickly realized he didn’t have his own. When his wife became pregnant with their son, he found out she was due February 18 — the same day as Fitzgerald’s daughter’s birthday.
Swatzell's anxiety and despair grew.
“Since I was young all I wanted was to have a wife and son and so when it happened it sent me to such anxiety and depression because I thought something was going to happen to them,” said Swatzell, “because I had been part of something happening to someone else.”
After seeing a therapist and many talks with Fitzgerald, Swatzell was able to move past the hurt. Now, he has another baby on the way.
“It's still a struggle and I have demons and things I’ll have to deal with forever,” said Swatzell. “But I can’t find the words to express what Fitzgerald and his support have done for me.”
Fitzgerald, who has been remarried for almost two years, said he'll one day have more kids with his new wife. Though he lives further from where he and Swatzell first met, the two families visit whenever they're near each other.
Fitzgerald believes he has gotten just as much out the friendship as Swatzell has.
“This has been just as healing for me too,” said Fitzgerald. “I’ve taught on forgiveness and I know that forgiveness is not so much for the other person but for yourself.”