NHBZ speaker to share journey from hate to healing

Sammy Rangel will speak at NHBZ’s International Speaker Series on Sunday, Sept. 17Photo: Live. Laugh. Photography

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chef Emeritus

Sammy Rangel will share his journey from a childhood lost to abuse, crime and incarceration, to overcoming his anger and hate, to devoting his life to helping others and “believing that change is possible” as the featured speaker in Nusach Hari B’nai Zion’s “Inspirational Speakers Series” on Sunday, Sept. 17 (see infobox for more details).

Rangel, 48, a native of Chicago, is executive director of the Chicago-based organization, Life After Hate, and author of “Fourbears: The Myths of Forgiveness.” He spent most of his early years in mental institutions as well as foster and detention homes. He embraced violence at the age of 11.

It was not until a drug abuse program helped him rehabilitate that Rangel began to further his education and start working for a Safe Streets Outreach Program in Wisconsin.

Rangel was raised Catholic, but in the course of his early life of abuse, he rejected religion.  He has roots in the Native American community, and has found his way to a Native American spiritual path.

He earned a master’s degree in social work, consults with law enforcement agencies and other service providers to reduce violent extremism.  He is a founder of Formers Anonymous, a self-help program for men and women looking to leave a life of crime and violence.  In addition, he is a certified drug and alcohol counselor, and frequently provides counseling in domestic, physical and sexual abuse.  

The theme of his talk at NHBZ is forgiveness—asking in a world in which pain and hate seem like everyday occurrences, how does one find forgiveness and allow himself to life of purpose and helping others. Susan Balk, founding director of the St. Louis-based Hatebrakers, an organization that helps people overcome bigotry, bullying and hatred, and was a recipient of the 2017 Jewish Light Unsung Hero Award, will introduce Rangel at the event.

The Light caught up with Rangel for a phone interview in anticipation of his talk.


Talk about your program of Life After Hate and Formers Anonymous and how it relates to Hatebrakers.

The mission of Life After Hate is to deal with hate groups and divisiveness in this country.  We embrace rather than condemn, applying principles of compassion and empathy.  Hatebrakers and Life After Hate are two groups well aligned in purpose.  We see value in all people and believe they are redeemable.  We strive to pull them out of hate groups.  I am also the founder of Formers Anonymous, a 12-step program for men and women addicted to street life and suffering the effects of prison life.


How do you define a hate crime?

What makes a crime a hate crime is identifying the victims who are being targeted.  Not all violence is violent extremism and not all crime is hate crime. At 17, I was drawn into a full-scale riot at the prison.  I didn’t fully understand at that time what was violence and what was extremism.


How did you find your way out of a life of hate and crime to a path of healing and forgiveness?

People can sometimes talk us into trouble, rather than help us around it.  For example, a victim who feels unheard may choose a path that leads to more destruction, rather than the man (who mentored me).  He helped me because he saw all parts of humanity and showed me that responding from a positive perspective is more healing.  A broken response to a trauma does not help, but rather it aggravates the situation.


In addition to the advice you received from your mentor while in prison, what led you from hate to a position of forgiveness?

I had started to identify with my mother, who abused me and allowed me to be abused.  I was introduced to my own wrongdoings only when I was open and not resistant to understanding my actions.  When I validated my own pain, it became a vulnerable moment of walking through that pain and exposed me to that of my mother.  She too, was entitled to be understood for what she became as I was to be understood for whom I became.  I didn’t believe that I was born to kill and neither did my mother.  That realization, for both of us, came at the same time.  Once I was able to realize I had a line of victims behind me, I was committed to make amends and feel remorse.  Today I feel very worthy of contributing.  My contribution to others is not just a sense of debt, but a sense of worthiness.


How do you feel about giving a talk to a primarily Jewish audience?

This will be my first presentation to a primarily Jewish audience. Life After Hate advocates for the right to live in a community that is safe, where one does not fear persecution as a group or as an individual.  As a people, the Jewish people should not have to stand alone with memories of the deep wounds of Nazi Germany here in our country today.  I appreciate this opportunity because I know it requires a certain trust to invite and host a speaker with a message as deep as mine.


What do you want your audience to take away from your talk?

I am hopeful my talk will inspire people with an awareness that we have the power to change what experiences represent us.  Often we don’t understand this and feel powerless by things that happen outside our control.  We don’t go back and reflect on the experiences and realize the things that have held us down can be the things that hold us up.  We do not have to be the victims in our stories.  We can narrate our story differently than it has been narrated to us.