With an open heart and the “Queer Eye” cameras rolling, Wesley Hamilton did the inconceivable.
He sat down with the man who shot and paralyzed him. And Hamilton forgave him.
As a black man and a victim of violence — my son and best friend were both killed by gunfire in St. Louis — I could relate to the suffering Wesley Hamilton had endured. But I couldn’t imagine showing those who turned my life upside down that kind of humanity and graciousness.
Hamilton, who lives in Raytown, was shot in the back in 2012 after a disagreement with a former girlfriend at a Grandview apartment complex. The shooter, Maurice Birdwell, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault, armed criminal action and unlawful possession of a firearm and was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years.
In the new season of Netflix’s makeover show “Queer Eye,” Hamilton sits down with the man responsible for partially severing his spine and paralyzing him below the waist.
Hamilton and Birdwell, who are both African American, had never met before the life-altering incident. Hamilton did not attend Birdwell’s sentencing and hadn’t faced his assailant until the “Queer Eye” crew arrived in Kansas City a year or so ago. He knows he chose an unusual path by agreeing to meet with Birdwell.
“The things that I am doing are not the norm,” Hamilton said. “But it is something that has to be done to reshape the mindset of our community.”
Transformation more than physical
Hamilton is one of eight heroes who got makeovers on Season 4 of “Queer Eye,” which debuts Friday. The show specializes in transformations, and Hamilton came away from the experience with a new look, new clothes and a remodeled home.
But it was the meeting between the shooter and the gunshot victim that was life-changing for Hamilton — and perhaps for me, too.
I never would have considered sitting down with those responsible for murdering my child and close friend. It has been a struggle not to feel malice and hate for the killers.
But Hamilton’s strength and compassion allowed me to reexamine a hardened heart. I am now open to a possibility that has been a decade in the making.
Hamilton’s willingness to broker peace with his assailant sends a powerful message. In Kansas City, where 74% of this year’s 74 homicide victims have been black men, and 52% of the suspects are also black males, his story could change other lives.
A lesson for all black men
Hamilton says Birdwell told him that he was trying to protect his friend when he started shooting.
“As a black man, we don’t learn accountability,” Hamilton said. “I could have avoided this situation and walked away. But I didn’t. Once I started to understand that, I just couldn’t say this man randomly shot me. He would have never been there if I would have left.”
“My hope is Wes is a person our young people can model,” Daniel said.
Today, Hamilton is an accomplished adaptive athlete, entrepreneur and father. His nonprofit, the Disabled But Not Really Foundation, collects and distributes care packages to homeless people and teaches disadvantaged youth life skills such as changing tires and repairing brakes on vehicles.
Hamilton has been a force for good, choosing not to let his disability limit what he can accomplish. But it was talking face to face with Birdwell that finally released the demons that still haunted him.
“I would never be who I am if I wasn’t in this situation,” he said.
Learning forgiveness is freeing
Like me, Willis has struggled with the concept of forgiveness.
“I would like to sit down and talk to the person(s) responsible for my son’s death. I would like to be able to forgive them,” Willis told me. “I think if I understood the circumstances, that would give me a better outlook to make that decision to forgive.”
Hamilton’s grace and his ability to forgive are inspiring.
“I had already freed myself from mental and physical barriers, but I did not free myself from myself,” Hamilton said. “Doing that was a powerful message, and that is the main reason I cannot wait for that episode to air. People don’t understand how powerful that is.”
I do, Wesley. I understand the gravity of the moment. Reconciliation is powerful — especially among black men.