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An Amazing Act of Forgiveness

editor of Times Community News; William Lobdell, editor of Times Community News, looks at faith as a regular contributor to The Times Orange County religion page. His e-mail address: bill.lobdell@latimes.com

Madge Rodda has been friends with James Bridle for six years now--since just after he tried to rape, rob and kill her in an early-morning ambush in a Denny’s bathroom.

The unlikely story of their friendship is a story of forgiveness, a tale Rodda says is possible only because of God’s amazing grace.

Six years ago, Rodda, a grandmother and church organist who now lives in Lake Forest, began her Sunday morning like most others. She headed to a Denny’s in Costa Mesa at 3 in the morning for some “spiritual Wheaties"--Bible study, quiet time and breakfast. It was her way of getting ready for 7:30 a.m. church services at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa.

But she would not make it to church that day. She nearly didn’t make it out of the restaurant alive.

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Before heading to church, Rodda went to the restroom. Hiding in the stall next to hers was James Bridle, a transient carnival worker. High on cocaine, he had been reading a pornographic magazine, police said. With a knife in one hand, he was ready to attack.

Rodda says that when she emerged from the stall, there he was.

The attack was vicious and long--maybe 15 minutes, she recalls. After wedging the door shut with the porno magazine, he choked her, bashed her head repeatedly on the tile floor, cut her throat and tried to sexually assault her.

Rodda, then 70, put up an amazing fight against the strapping, 23-year-old attacker. She stands all of 4 feet, 11 inches and weighs 100 pounds.

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She says she hit and kicked and screamed out prayers (“Lord, help me! Lord, save me! Dear Jesus, only you can save me!”), though no one in the restaurant could hear her through the bathroom’s double doors.

When the attack was over, she says, Bridle turned to her--Rodda’s white blouse soaked in blood, her face swollen and bruised--and said, “I believe in God too. But Satan is poisoning my mind. I need help. I know I need help.”

And then he fled, but he didn’t get far. A Denny’s manager chased him down, tackled and pinned him until police arrived.

This is where the story would usually end. “Elderly church organist attacked by carnival worker” would rate a couple of paragraphs in the local paper. But in her hospital bed at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Rodda changed all that with the first words she whispered to her daughter after the attack: “That poor man. That poor man. We must find a way of getting him a Bible.”

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Not a lot of people understood what she was doing. The rape counselors insisted she was in denial and pleaded with her to “get [her] anger out.” Others thought she was a saint, a theory Rodda laughs at.

“It’s my nature to hold a grudge,” Rodda said. “I can remember things from years and years ago that everyone else has probably forgotten.”

Rodda’s explanation is simply that the spirit of God moved her.

“This wasn’t natural, it was supernatural,” Rodda said.

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And so Rodda forgave James Bridle. They met again for the first time in court. After a judge sentenced Bridle to 17 years in prison--which Rodda thought was fair--she gave her assailant a Bible with verses she had highlighted to help him on his spiritual journey.

“God knew this attack was going to happen,” Rodda said. “So he sent a little old lady organist who’d have no better sense than to stand up in court with a Bible and say to her attacker, ‘The word of God is all you need.’ ”

And so began an unusual relationship between a victim and her attacker. She’s visited him in jail, they’ve written each other letters, she’s sent gifts and now they call each other friend.

“He keeps referring to me as a friend, and that’s what I am,” Rodda said.

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She also knows her ability to help Bridle is limited. A soft-spoken grandmother has little in common with a drifter from Texas. So she has contacted various Christian organizations--plus the prison chaplains--and hooked up Bridle with Christian men who specialize in helping prisoners straighten out their lives.

“I hope when he’s released that he’ll be surrounded by people who can help him and understand,” Rodda said.

The attack has changed her life, too. Rodda’s ministry has always been music; she has been playing the piano since she was 4. But she has stopped playing the organ in churches since the attack, mostly because she doesn’t have time.

Her story of forgiveness has made its way around the world--thanks to the initial burst of publicity on wire services, radio and TV--and Rodda is a sought-after speaker for churches and Christian organizations.

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“Before the attack, I’d always hear people give their testimony and talk about how someone they were talking to on an airplane was converted,” Rodda said. “And I always wanted to do that but never had a story to tell.

“If I knew the Lord was going to answer my prayer in this way,” she added with a laugh, “I probably would have never prayed it.”

Rodda continually refers to herself as grateful and fortunate, because her story of forgiveness has intrigued both the religious and secular world.

“People are fascinated, because this is something God is saying,” Rodda said. “I’m just lucky enough to be the person he used.”

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Well into her eighth decade--"I’m pretty close to meeting the Lord face-to-face now"--Rodda doesn’t struggle with forgiveness anymore. But she has some advice for those who do.

“You may not feel forgiveness, compassion and love,” Rodda said, “but God will always provide the grace for us to do what he has commanded us to do, and he has commanded us to forgive.”


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