From death to life

| January 6, 2011 | 1 Comment

Mary Johnson of north Minneapolis considers Oshea Israel (formerly Marlon Green) her spiritual son, after forgiving him for the murder of her son, Laramuin Byrd, in 1993. They are pictured at the St. Jane House, a ministry of the Visitation Sisters and the headquarters of a group Johnson started called From Death to Life. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic SpiritMom reconciles with son’s killer, with help from Visitation Sisters’ St. Jane House

This is a remarkable term, considering that, 17 years ago, this same woman wanted nothing more than to see the man rot in prison for the rest of his life.

The 34-year-old man rose from the couch in the living room. On his way out, he paused to exchange friendly words with a woman seated near him.

He whispered in her ear and kissed her on the cheek. Then, he looked at her and smiled, and kissed her again.

An outsider might have thought the older woman who received this affection was his mother. And, in fact, she is a mother of sorts to this man. They both use the term “spiritual mother.”

This is a remarkable term, considering that, 17 years ago, this same woman wanted nothing more than to see the man rot in prison for the rest of his life.

A different road

Few could blame her for feeling this way. In 1993, the man, Marlon Green, now named Oshea Israel, killed her son, Laramuin Byrd. There was an argument at a party, followed by gunfire and the death of Byrd. Mary Johnson of north Min­nea­po­lis was in shock for two or three months, then became angry at her son’s killer and, ultimately, at God.

But the story took a remarkable, if not miraculous, turn years later, when Johnson felt called by God to visit her son’s killer in prison. A tearful embrace at the end of their meeting took her down a road of forgiveness that eventually led to the son-like relationship with Israel today. She also has reconciled with Israel’s mother, Carol Green, and views her as family, too.

At the center of this compelling story about the power of forgiveness is the St. Jane House in north Minneapolis, which is part of the ministry of the Visitation Sisters. Six nuns have been living in the crime-ridden part of the city for 22 years, setting up shop in two houses.

St. Jane House is a third house, owned and directed by Brian Mogren, who left a well-paying job at Target after 24 years and now devotes his time helping St. Jane House function as a retreat center that tries to offer a sense of peace and welcome in a neighborhood plagued by chaos and crime.

In 2007, Mogren, who is a lay member of the Visitation community, approached the sisters with the idea of having a retreat center to serve the neighborhood. They agreed and, soon afterward, invited Johnson to come and share her story with all of the sisters and anyone else who wanted to listen.

Eventually, she started an organization called From Death to Life that ministers to others who have lost a child through violence. Mogren serves on its advisory board and meet­ings take place at St. Jane House.

Today, the miracle of forgiveness continues to be repeated at St. Jane House. On Christmas Eve, Johnson, Israel, his mother and six other mothers of murdered children met to share stories and embrace each other in solidarity.

Marveling at the scene were people like Mogren and Janice Andersen of the Basilica of St. Mary in Min­neapolis, who was deeply touched by John­son’s story and helped facilitate her church’s role as a fiscal agent on behalf of Johnson’s organization.

From hatred to forgiveness

But none of this was conceivable back in 1993 to a woman so torn by grief and anger that all she could think about was seeing her son’s killer put behind bars.

Although a devout Christian, she had neither the strength nor desire to forgive Israel for ending Laramuin’s life at such a young age. In fact, it wasn’t love she felt for Israel, who was just a boy himself.

“I don’t know when the hatred came, but it came,” she recalled.

The anger simmered for years, even though she knew in her heart she was supposed to forgive. The internal conflict between the way she felt and the way she was supposed to practice her faith reached its peak when she was teaching a class at her church. She was using a book titled “Total Forgiveness” by R.T. Kendall.

“It began to open my eyes to what forgiveness is,” she said. “I had to be obedient to the things I was hearing inside [about forgiveness]. I had to pray for him [Israel]. I had to say out loud I forgave him. I had to choose to forgive him.

“I also had to repent of the feelings I had about him. I had to pray for forgiveness for myself and the things I was feeling about him and saying about him. I had to do all those things. I even had to forgive God. I had to let him go. After I realized I was mad at God, I had to forgive him because I held him responsible.”

As she went through these spiritual steps, she began to feel God leading her to visit Israel at Stillwater Prison. The feeling led her to a 21-day fast “to make sure I was hearing correctly that it was time for me to meet him.”

Of course, no meeting could take place without Israel’s consent, so she talked with prison officials who, in turn, talked to Israel. Unfortunately, he was not in the same frame of mind as she was.

“When I first heard about it, I said it’s not going to happen,” he recalled. “What do I want to meet her for? There’s nothing for us to talk about.”

Then, he thought about his own mother, and how she would want such a meeting if her son had been killed, so that she could gain some closure. So, he agreed.

The meeting took place in 2005. For Israel, he just wanted to “hurry up and do it.” Then, he could get on with his life as an inmate.

Johnson, meanwhile, viewed this as an important step in the road to forgiveness and, ultimately, healing. What she didn’t know was just how thorough the cleansing would be, especially after the tearful embrace at the end of their meeting.

“What took place at that meeting was way beyond what I could have imagined,” she said. “I said [to Israel], ‘From the bottom of my heart, I forgive you, I loose you, I let you go.’ And, he asked me how I could do that. And, I said because of who was within me. I could no long­er hold on to all that junk in my heart.”

Touching others

Johnson retold her story while sitting on a couch at St. Jane House, just days after the Christmas Eve 2010 gathering took place. Seated across from her was Israel, clearly basking in the forgiveness she had granted him and the maternal love she had bestowed upon him.

And, listening intently and nodding in agreement was another woman just like Johnson — Angel Cradle. Three years ago, on June 19, 2007, her son, Duane Tyson Sr., was murdered at the age of 34. It took place in Seattle, where he was living at the time. And, like Johnson, she dealt with a lot of anger before she found a path to forgiveness at St. Jane House.

“In the beginning of the tragedy of my son, I pretty much went solo in my communication with anyone,” she said. “There was a couple of months when I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even family members. And, I was very angry at God for taking my son, and I didn’t understand why.

But, I believe that the Holy Spirit moved within me and took me to a place where I asked God for help.”

As a first step, Cradle joined a local church called Shiloh Ministries. Some time after joining, the church held a forum for parents of murdered children. She got there late, right in the middle of a talk given by one of the speakers: Mary Johnson. Cradle got there just as Johnson shared about how she forgave Israel.

“The word ‘forgiveness’ was way be­yond my comprehension at that time,” she said. “I just started crying when she talked about forgiveness. I thought, ‘How can she forgive someone who took her child?’

“I cried for days after that. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Mary Johnson. I couldn’t see where she was at, but I knew that I needed some release from what I was feeling. I knew the Holy Spirit was working on me.”

That work continued when a coworker told her about Mogren and urged her to meet him. She agreed and went to St. Jane House.

“There was something good in him and I just embraced him and started telling him about my son,” she said. Still, it was only three months after her son was murdered, and she didn’t feel ready to forgive.

But she did accept an invitation from Mogren to come back to St. Jane House to hear Johnson speak. This time, rather than walking in late, she got there early. And, this time she became a participant.

Johnson had planned to read a poem titled “Two Mothers,” which was instrumental in her healing process. It is a fictional conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the mother of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus.

But Johnson forgot her glasses and asked for a volunteer. Cradle raised her hand. By the time she had finished reading the second stanza, a drama­tic transformation was beginning.

“That’s the day when I was delivered into this miraculous journey of hope,” she said. “I knew and I felt, after hearing her story, that there was hope for me, too. Mary embraced me that day, and I’ve been with From Death to Life ever since. It’s changed my life. It has really, truly changed my life, even though the pain remains.”

Open to grace

It’s transformations like these that impress the sisters and make them excited about their ministry at St. Jane House.

Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie first heard Johnson speak at St. Philip in Minne­apolis in March 2007, along with Mogren.

“My reaction has always been, when I hear her, I just absolutely marvel at how she was faithful to God’s grace,” she said. “It’s that step-by-step faithfulness that leads people to forgiveness.

“When you think of something that powerful happening because of Mary’s forgiveness, you have to be overwhelmed at the love God pours out on this earth through his forgiveness.”

Thanks to people like Mogren and the Visitation Sisters, more people are hearing Johnson’s testimony. After An­der­sen heard her speak, she told staff mem­bers at the Basilica. Eventually, Johnson was in­vited to speak there, drawing about 150 to 200 people, mostly youth.

“This story is so sacred and miraculous,” she said. “This is the nuclear blast of so many changes that are happening because of it.”

Andersen said the Basilica plans to have Johnson speak again in 2011, while continuing to accept donations on behalf of Johnson’s organization, which doesn’t yet have official nonprofit status.

People can write out checks to the Basilica, then note that they want the funds to go to From Death to Life. The parish routes the money there, helps manage it and provides other volunteer services. Since August, Andersen said, the Basilica has received about $5,000 in donations for From Death to Life.

August also is the month Israel was released from prison, 17 years after that fateful night when he pulled the trigger and ended the life of Laramuin Byrd. And, it’s the month when his mother and Johnson were reconciled.

Once again, the prompting of the Holy Spirit led to a miraculous event. Mogren facilitated a meeting between the two mothers. It coincided with a party at St. Jane House to celebrate Israel’s release from prison. Surely, Green would want to attend. And, Johnson would be there to offer reconciliation.

But Green had the same inner struggle Johnson did before meeting Israel. Part of her wanted to go — she was packing her suitcase, even while denying to her husband, B.J., that she was going anywhere — and part of her was reluctant.

Then, one day, she picked up her Bible and asked God what she should do. She turned to Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”) and saw in her mind the face of her son beckoning her to come to him.

“Tears started to come,” she said. That was it. She had a peaceful feeling when she walked into St. Jane House that August day. There even was a joy. And, best of all, she found healing in her meeting with Johnson.

“We went through a huge transformation,” she said. “There was no animosity, no tension. We were OK.

“It was definitely a miracle. And, there has been miracle after miracle from that point. It was truly awesome.”

It’s stories like this that cause Mogren not to regret leaving his job at Target in January 2008. His departure was abrupt — he went into his office one day not knowing it would be his last. But his desire to do ministry work in north Min­nea­polis had grown to the point where he sat down at his desk, cried, then turned in his resignation.

He no longer has the same econo­mic comfort he did at Target, but comfort has come in other ways. “No amount of money could ever bring to me the joy and the fulfillment that participation in this work brings,” he said. “This is more fulfilling than any paycheck.

“We’re created for love and the whole of the material world is tools for love. The idea that I own anything is an illusion. This house is not mine.

It’s a tool for me to love people through. When I let go of it being mine, miracles happen.”

One of those miracles is named Mary Johnson. Yet, she doesn’t consider herself a miracle. She has a more practical term for how she can impact others.

“This is what I’ve been put on this earth to do — to be a bridge to these families [of murdered children],” she said. “I had to go through this to be that bridge.”

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