Just as he had hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, Frederick Gelsey Sr. looked into the eyes of a criminal this week and offered hope and forgiveness.
But this time, delivering that message came amid personal grief. And this criminal, like no other, exacted an overwhelming price.
Gelsey forgave the man who killed his son.
For two decades, the pastor at One in Christ Temple on Buffalo’s East Side has traveled to jails and prisons across Western New York ministering to inmates.
Tuesday, Gelsey stood in an Erie County courtroom and delivered a message of hope and forgiveness to Wayne P. Vance, 30, of Briscoe Avenue, who had already pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Frederick Gelsey Jr., 31, on Dec. 28.
Before Vance learned his sentence, he listened as Gelsey read his victim impact statement.
“I wake up with him on my mind, and I wonder if it will go away, the pain of losing my son,” Gelsey said. “I don’t know, but I do know this, I will never get the opportunity to see my son walk through the doors of my home or of my church.”
And then Gelsey spoke to Vance.
“ ‘What am I going to do now?’ I ask myself,” Gelsey continued. “What would Fred do? I don’t know, but I’m going to forgive you, Wayne. I refuse to carry hurt with me for the rest of my life.”
It can be hard to find forgiveness in a courtroom. “It’s rare, and I’ve been on the bench 25 years,” said Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka, who presided at Vance’s sentencing.
Pietruszka sentenced Vance to 23 years in prison, a small break from the 25-year maximum term because his guilty plea showed he accepted responsibility and spared the victim’s family a trial.
Gelsey, 61, has ministered to inmates for two decades. He has welcomed several ex-cons to the congregation of his Pentecostal church at 938 Broadway, a block from the Broadway Market.
Gelsey’s past helps him relate to inmates. Gelsey himself spent 17 of his younger years in and out of prison, mostly for larcenies, burglaries and robberies to buy drugs. A religious conversion in the 1980s changed his life.
“I can relate to what they’re going through,” he said.
But after his son’s violent death, “I felt the victim side,” Gelsey said.
Gelsey leads a Bible study group Tuesday nights at the Erie County Correctional Facility.
He’s at Wende Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison, every first Saturday of the month to pray with inmates. He received Wende’s Volunteer of the Year award in 2000. He also has ministered to inmates at Attica.
“I’m talking to murderers and rapists. I’m talking to molesters and robbers,” Gelsey told The Buffalo News after the sentencing. “I’m talking to them about a God that loves them, no matter what they did, and a God that gives everyone another chance.”
But could he say that to his son’s killer?
Tuesday was the first time Gelsey saw Vance since the arrest.
“When this happened to my son, I had to ask myself, ‘Do I really mean what I say?’ ” Gelsey said. “I had to make a decision on that.”
And he did.
“I couldn’t change what I do,” he said. Soon after his son’s death, Gelsey was back in a prison praying with inmates.
An inmate approached him, he said.
“He said to me, ‘Rev. Gelsey, I knew the guy who killed your son,’ ” Gelsey said.
And the inmate apologized.
“And then he said, ‘Will you please keep loving us?’ That touched my heart,” Gelsey said.
“I still mourn my son,” Gelsey told The News. “But I had to forgive him. We’ve got to let it go. We can’t hold onto what Wayne did. It’s not going to help us.”
So in the courtroom, Gelsey reminded Vance about his jail ministry over the years and what he has told convicts. “I tell them that Jesus will forgive them and give them a second chance at life,” Gelsey told Vance. “Wayne, I give you that same message. There is hope for you in Jesus.”
During his time to speak in court, Vance apologized to Gelsey “for the pain I caused you all.”
“I regret what I did,” he said.
He added that he was glad to be forgiven.
Vance shot Gelsey Jr. in the attic of Vance’s Briscoe Avenue home after the two spent the day together.
Vance said Gelsey Jr. “was like a brother” to him.
But “there was a lot going on in my life,” he said, after the July 2011 shooting outside the New Humboldt Inn on East Delavan Avenue at Humboldt Parkway that took the life of Vance’s brother.
“I felt he had something to do with the death of my brother,” Vance said of Gelsey Jr.
“I feel the same pain as your family,” Vance said of his brother’s unsolved death.
Gelsey Jr. had been at the New Humboldt Inn at the time of the shooting, and knew Vance’s brother, but he did not have anything to do with that crime, Gelsey Sr. said. In fact, Gelsey Jr. came home crying after the shooting, Gelsey Sr. recalled.
Gelsey Jr. moved to Harlem – close to his mother, sisters and brother – after the July 2011 shooting.
He returned to Buffalo for a Christmas visit and sought out Vance, Gelsey Sr. said.
“He was a friend to you, even though people were telling him to stay away from you,” Gelsey Sr. told Vance during the sentencing. “Fred said no, that all you needed is a friend. He was your friend, Wayne. But on Dec. 28, you killed your friend. Did Fred see it coming? I don’t think so. He was blinded by the love that he had for his brother.”
Vance said someone tried to kill him over the holiday, firing “40 shots at me.”
“I thought he was coming back to town to do something to me,” Vance said.
Gelsey Sr. recalled that his son had brought Vance to his church once.
Now, Vance faces two decades in the kind of prisons in which Gelsey Sr. has become a familiar presence.
“I pray that you find [God] while you are upstate,” the pastor told Vance.