GOSHEN — Wilbert Smith grew to be close friends with Vertus Hardiman through a church choir, but Smith wondered why Hardiman always wore a dark black wig or a hat.
When he found out the answer, Smith was inspired to tell Hardiman’s story to others through film.
Hardiman was born in 1922 in Lyles Station and at 5 years of age was one of several African-American children used by a hospital staff in trials of a radiation machine, Smith explained. The experiment left Hardiman with a malformed head, including an actual hole in his skull.
Smith spoke to students, staff and community members about Hardiman and the making of the film “Hole in the Head: A Life Revealed” during a convocation Monday morning during Goshen College’s 20th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day.
He explained how Hardiman had contracted ringworm in 1927 from his brother, who was one of several students at a segregated school to have the fungal infection. A nearby hospital had recently obtained a radiation machine, “equipment they were just learning how to use,” Smith said, and advertised a free new treatment for ringworm as a cover-up for experiments with radiation.
Smith’s message, though, focused on how inspired he was by the way Hardiman had forgiven the people who had caused him a life-long deformity and pain.
“I had spent hundreds of hours just waiting for him to say ‘those individuals who did this to me, I hope they rot in hell, I hope they this, I hope they that,’ and I kept doing everything in my power to pull it out, if it was there ... I wanted you to see the real man,” Smith said about his interviews with Hardiman for the film.
“But he never once (did),” Smith said. Hardiman told Smith that he prayed daily and that the people who had harmed him may have prayed and asked for forgiveness from God. If God had granted forgiveness, Hardiman should too, Smith said Hardiman told him.
Smith urged those in the audience to think about what anger or pain they have held on to and to let it go.
“Forgiveness is extremely powerful,” Smith said during the convocation. “It is something that ... perhaps we need to think a lot more about and perhaps even more frequently.”
Goshen College hosted viewings of Smith’s film last week in advance of Monday’s convocation.
Monday morning also included a spoken word coffee house, a reading from author Dana Johnson during the convocation and a luncheon centered on discussion about health care and social justice issues. During the afternoon, the college hosted a workshop on Martin Luther King Jr. and environmental justice.
After the convocation, the college invited people to participate in 40 days of “shalom,” which means peace, picking up a bookmark with a list of activities to bring peace to the community. A student leadership group also invited people to write how they view shalom on small quilt blocks. Eventually, the blocks will create a large quilt.