As a Christian woman, Mary Johnson felt she needed to forgive the man who killed her son.
While she shared these words with a 16-year-old Oshea Israel before he was sentenced in 1993 for the murder of her 20-year-old son Laramiun Byrd, she truthfully did not forgive until she visited him 12 years later in prison and formed an unexpected bond.
They became neighbors in north Minneapolis after Israel’s release in March 2010, and Johnson calls Israel her spiritual son.
Through a nonprofit organization Johnson founded called From Death to Life (www.fromdeathtolife.us), she and Israel have shared their story with People magazine, on ABC’s The View and many other national media outlets over the years, as well as schools and prisons.
Johnson was among a handful of people to get an hour with President Barack Obama in early February 2013 and she was soon after flown to Washington D.C. to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama.
Chain of Lakes Church Pastor Rev. Paul Moore held a special Sunday, Feb. 9 service at their place of worship at DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science in Blaine to kick off a series on forgiveness. The majority of the service was set aside for Moore and the congregation to hear the story and ask Johnson and Israel questions.
Johnson acknowledged that not all her family members understand how she can forgive the man who shot her son at a party Feb. 12, 1993, but she feels unforgivingness is a cancer that only affects the person who has trouble forgiving – not the person who hurt them.
“I know from many conversations that people struggle with the issue of forgiveness. Hopefully by hearing Mary’s story many people can take some steps in their own journey of forgiveness,” Moore said.
Moore told Johnson he is not a cynic, but those who are may feel she let Israel off the hook.
“Baloney,” Johnson replied. “When you forgive someone, you’re still holding them responsible. He took my son’s life. He has not gotten off the hook in any way.”
Israel agreed that Johnson has held her accountable. Every day he sees her, he is reminded of what he did. But their conversations focus on his relationships and him becoming a productive member of society. He is struggling to find a job because of his history, however.
Through it all, Johnson has been there to support him as much as his own mother has, who Johnson met in August 2010.
“It’s so easy to fall back into those behaviors, but when you have someone who believes in you, it makes you harder to do it because you don’t want to let them down,” Israel said.
The path to forgiveness
Johnson first saw the 16-year-old Israel as a monster. So how did she come to forgive him?
One day while reading a book that included poems to help understand scripture, Johnson discovered a poem called “Two Mothers.”
The story is about two angels meeting in heaven. One mother says she would have taken her son’s place on the cross. The other mother fell down, realizing she was talking to the mother of Jesus. She shared that her son was Judas Iscariot and the poem abruptly ended. Iscariot, according to the New Testament of the Bible, is said to be the one who betrayed Jesus before he was killed on the cross.
Johnson understood the message of the poem was about forgiveness, but it took more time until she had the courage to ask to meet with Israel.
At first he declined because he blamed everyone but himself for what happened and was not in the right state of mind to meet the mother of the man he murdered.
Johnson did not give up so easily though, he said.
“Mary is very persistent, Israel said. “Once she has her mind set on something, she does not give up.”
Eight to nine months after the first request, he agreed to meet Johnson. Before she visited him in prison, she met with a support group through the Minnesota Department of Corrections that included parents of murdered children and parents of people who had killed someone.
“I began to see that these women are human beings,” Johnson said. “They are not animals that I supposed them to be. You don’t know someone else’s story.”
Today, Johnson is one of the facilitators for this group. She also holds her own Two Mothers Healing Groups through the From Death to Life organization.
Johnson went to the prison in Stillwater in March 2005 with her friend Regina accompanying her for support. Johnson was told she could not bring anything inside the visiting room, but pressed hard for some hand lotion because of her dry skin. She was given a bottle and applied the lotion while waiting for Israel to walk through the door. As they waited, Regina examined the bottle and exclaimed that the brand was “Beyond Belief.”
“I’m like, ‘That’s exactly what’s happening here. It’s beyond belief that I’m sitting here waiting for them to bring in this man that’s taken my son’s life.’”
A knock came at the door and Israel walked in.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know you. You don’t know me. You didn’t know my son, and my son didn’t know you. So we need to lay a foundation,’” Johnson said.
Israel had cleared his mind of any expectations. When he heard these words from Johnson, it put him at ease that they were just going to have a genuine meeting to get to know each other.
As they were getting ready to go their separate ways, Israel asked Johnson if he could hug her and she accepted. When they hugged, Johnson broke down in tears and would have fallen had Israel not held her up.
“Now mind you, I’ve been in prison at this point for 12 years. You have to watch your back at all times. You never know what’s going to happen,” Israel said. “I’ve never been more scared in my life than seeing a woman cry.”
A spiritual bond was formed at that moment. When Israel left the room and Regina helped her stand straight up, Johnson felt something stirring in her feet that spread up her body.
“I felt this demon leave me,” she said. “Instantly I was set free from all that anger, all that hatred, all that bitterness, all that stuff that I had been walking around with for 12 years.”
“Amen,” someone said from the church congregation said.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org