Examining the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel in Minneapolis. How the mother of a murdered son, forgave, reconciled and in time adopted her son’s killer. What is capable with forgiveness and reconciliation when its fully unleashed. What would happen if this kind of forgiveness and reconciliation is the norm and not the exception in Christianity?
“The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness”
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”
2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV
I want to focus a little bit on forgiveness and reconciliation in this journal entry. Now its commonly known that many evangelical Christians are known for self righteousness, pride, arrogance, etc… A few years ago the Barna group had another study that pointed to this issue. This is common knowledge. I want to talk about a situation that is amazing that I read about a while back and have since researched. Many people struggle with forgiveness and reconciliation. I want to ask the question….if the story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel were the norm and not the exception would people view Christians as being self righteous, arrogant, proud, etc…? I think this is one of many stories and situations that I would like to write about that show the power of forgiveness and what can be unleashed when its practiced. I would like to ask the following questions.
- Can you forgive and reconcile with that business partner who hurt you in that questionable deal?
- Can you forgive and reconcile with your friend who had an affair with your wife?
- Can Andrew White in Colorado Springs, Colorado and Eagle in DC forgive each other and reconcile despite deeply hurting each other?
- Think of a pressing personal situation in your life of someone you would like to forgive and reconcile with.
So its with that in mind I would like to press on and dive into this story. I pray and hope that people reading this can reconcile and forgive those they are estranged from. Or those situations in deep pain. I’m still praying for Andrew, and of course I did reconcile with a large number of people which has taught me a lot about forgiveness.
Murder in Minneapolis and the Path Toward Forgiveness and Reconciliation
On February 12, 1993 Marlon Green attended a party in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was 16 years old. At the party he got into a heated fight with 20 year old Laramuin Byrd. Marlon was intoxicated and neither person backed down in the fight. Marlon thought that Laramuin was reaching for a gun and pulled out his and shot him three times. He then shot him in the head killing him. It was a brutal murder, another senseless case of urban violence. Laramuin’s mother Mary Johnson was in shock for three months. In a Hennepin County Courtroom Mary Johnson had to be restrained after interacting with Marlon’s mother Carolyn Green. The argument became so heated there was concern that Mary would strike Carolyn Green. She tried to forgive them but didn’t. Marlon Green was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. For Mary she had nothing but contempt and pure hatred at Marlon and Carolyn Green. Mary looked at Marlon as nothing but an animal that needed to be caged. As Mary told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in an article on December 23, 2010; “I was full of hatred, I saw him as an animal. I wanted him caged. I wanted him locked up for the rest of his life. That was justice for me.” But the hatred was consuming Mary. She tried support groups which didn’t help. She got justice but she was torn apart internally.
Mary eventually knew she had to forgive Marlon Green. In 2005 in order to be forgiven she had to forgive. So she did something incredibly brave when she asked to meet with Marlon Green in Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. In prison Marlon Green was struggling with the guilt of murdering someone. In an effort to “make a new beginning” Marlon Green changed his name to Oshea Israel. At first he turned down the request to meet with Mary Johnson. Oshea didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable in a state prison. 9 months later she made another request, which also had the Minnesota Department of Corrections leery as well. In preparation for the meeting restorative justice workers from the Department of Corrections held several preview meetings with both Israel and Johnsons to evaluate and gauge their motives. Johnson first met with female inmates from the Shakopee State Prison and she saw herself in them. As Mary describes it, “That’s when my heart began to change…I began to see them as people, not animals”
The day Mary Johnson met with Oshea Israel was vivid. She even remembers the hand lotion that was given to her while she waited to see him. The lotion was called, “Beyond Belief” as it summed up her feelings at the time. In the room Israel walked in, and Mary Johnson saw that he changed physically and mentally in the 12 years of being incarcerated. Mary Johnson started by saying that she didn’t know him, and he didn’t know her and asked to get to know him better. Mary Johnson spoke about her son, and Israel spoke about his life. As the meeting came to a close Mary Johnson told Oshea Israel, “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart” which led Israel to ask incredulously, “Ma’am, how can you do that?” Mary broke down and started crying, and had trouble standing; Israel couldn’t let her hit the floor and hugged her like Mary was his own mother. After security returned Israel back to the population, Mary Johnson said, “I just hugged the man who murdered my son.” What happened next could only be described by Mary Johnson who said, “All that stuff, all the junk deep inside me. I felt it rise from the bottom of my feet and leave me like nothing I have ever felt before…I had loosed him, and let him go” The meeting was a resurrection and allowed Mary to be the person she used to be.
After the meeting Oshea Israel struggled with what happened. In an article that was re-run in The Daily Beast Israel was quoted as saying, “being incarcerated for so long, you tend to get detached from real love from people. Sometimes I still don’t know how to take receiving forgiveness from you. How do you forgive someone who has taken your only child’s life? To know that I robbed you of that, and for you to forgive me..you can’t really put it into words.” After that meeting Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel met frequently and drew closer to each other. Inside prison both Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel met together and spoke about grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Many prison inmates couldn’t believe what they witnessed and wept at the sight of the Mary embracing and loving her son’s murderer.
In 2005 Mary Johnson founded an organization called “From Death to Life” which helps people who have lost loved ones to violence forgive and reconcile. A poem called “Two Mothers” which is an imaginary conversation between the mothers of Judas Iscariot and Jesus in whom they express and share their pain in losing their sons is what has driven Mary Johnson. This is the poem.
Long time ago, so I have been told,
Two angels once met on streets paved with gold.
“By the stars in your crown,” said the one to the other
“I see that on earth, you too, were a mother.
And by, the blue-tinted halo you wear
“You, too, have known sorrow and deepest despair…”
“Ah yes,” she replied, “I once had a son,
A sweet little lad, full of laughter and fun.”
“But tell of your child.” “Oh, I knew I was blessed
From the moment I first held him close to my breast,
And my heart almost burst with the joy of that day.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “I felt the same way.”
The former continued: “The first steps he took-
So eager and breathless; the sweet startled look
Which came over his face – he trusted me so.”
“Ah, yes,” said the other, “How well do I know”
“But soon he had grown to a tall handsome boy,
So stalwart and kind – and it gave me so much joy
To have him just walk down the street by my side”
“Ah yes, “ said the other mother,
“I felt the same pride.”
“How often I shielded and spared him from pain
And when he for others was so cruelly slain.
When they crucified him – and they spat in his face
How gladly would I have hung there in his place!”
A moment of silence – “Oh then you are she –
The mother of Christ”; and she fell on one knee.
But the Blessed one raised her up, drawing her near,
And kissed from the cheek of the woman, a tear.
“Tell me the name of the son you love so,
That I may share with your grief and your woe.
She lifted her eyes, looking straight at the other,
“He was Judas Iscariot: I am his mother.”
“From Death to Life” meets in the St. Jane House with the Visitation Sisters in Minneapolis. In August of 2010 Mary Johnson met Israel’s mother Carolyn Green for the first time since the trial. In the 1993 trial Mary had to be restrained, whereas in August of 2010 they reconciled and forgave each other and are now sisters in Christ. The way Carolyn describes it, “we share a son” and remarks that while Mary permanently lost her only son in 1993, she lost another son for 17 years. When Israel was released from prison Mary Johnson with her landlord’s blessing encouraged him to move in next door. She also held a post-prison homecoming party. Mary regards Oshea Israel to be her spiritual son. As she explains it, “It’s not pardoning what he did, and it’s not reconciliation. It’s true forgiveness.” Oshea is amazed as to the love and grace Mary has shown him, which has led him to want to give back to society. Today Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel go and speak about grace, forgiveness, and mercy in prisons, churches, church camps and retreats. Mary Johnson in an article in the Daily Beast spoke about her hopes for her “spiritual son” by saying, “I didn’t see Laramiun graduate, but you’re going to college, and I’ll be able to see you graduate. I didn’t see him get married. But hopefully, one day I’ll be able to experience that with you. Our relationship is beyond belief.”