More than a decade after her son was killed, Mary Johnson-Roy stood in Stillwater Prison hugging Oshea Israel, the man who murdered him. After Israel left the room, Johnson- Roy felt a sensation in her feet; it moved up through her body, then left. “I have never, ever in my life felt anything like it before,” she says, “but I instantly knew that it was over — that I had been delivered, set free, from all the animosity, all the anger, all the hatred, all that stuff I had inside me. It was gone.”
Johnson-Roy now calls Israel her “spiritual son.” Since his release in 2010, they’ve spoken about forgiveness at prisons, churches, and conferences all over the country as part of From Death to Life, an organization Johnson-Roy founded. From Death to Life also hosts the Two Mothers healing groups in Minneapolis, for women whose children have been murdered, or whose children have taken life.
None of this would have happened if not for a tragedy. On February 12, 1993, Johnson-Roy’s 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd, got into an argument with then 16-year-old Israel at an after-hours party. Israel shot Byrd several times, killing him.
Later that morning, Johnson-Roy went to her job at a phone company. She was there for about 20 minutes when her sister-in-law called asking if Byrd had come home the previous night. He hadn’t. There was a rumor going around that Byrd was dead, her sister said.
A slew of phone calls ensued. Johnson-Roy was told the police were coming to see her at her sister’s house. Her body gave way. When she came to, her supervisor was holding her. She was in such a state of shock that she doesn’t recall the elevator ride to the ground floor, the walk to the parking lot, or the ride to her sister’s house in north Minneapolis, where two detectives arrived. She was questioned about Byrd, as were some of his friends. Byrd’s body was soon identified.
Johnson-Roy went into the bathroom to pray. “I remember saying, ‘What is happening, God?’” she says. “I remember Him saying, ‘You don’t have to worry anymore about your child. I got him.’”
The next day she started making funeral arrangements for her only child.
It took about two years for the murder case to work its way through court. Israel was sentenced to 25 years for second-degree murder; for Johnson-Roy, that wasn’t enough. She thought Israel was an animal, and wanted him to be behind bars for life.
That animosity began to shift one day after Johnson-Roy read a poem titled “Two Mothers.” It is about a pair of angels in heaven who meet and share their grief over losing their respective sons. At the end of the poem, it is revealed that one of the angels is the mother of Jesus; the other is the mother of Judas. Johnson-Roy was struck by the poem, which she read again and again.
“Within myself I heard, ‘I want mothers of murdered children and mothers of children that have taken life to come together and heal together,’” she says. Yet she was still too angry to do anything about it.
She continued to hear this mandate every day for years, eventually realizing that if she was going to bring mothers together for healing, she would first need to meet Israel and let go of the anger she felt over her son’s death. In 2003, Johnson-Roy contacted the prison and asked to meet with Israel; initially, he refused. After some time passed, Johnson- Roy asked again. This time, Israel agreed.
At that first meeting, Johnson-Roy and Israel talked for about two hours. At the end of their time together came that life-changing hug.
When Israel was released from prison in 2010, Johnson- Roy threw him a welcome home party. Around 30 people attended and offered him help. “I wanted Oshea to know that there were people that cared about him that he didn’t even know,” she says. Israel ended up living next door to Johnson- Roy for three years. “Some people think, ‘Oh, boy, that lady is off her rocker.’ But no, I am not.”
About 20 mothers have since been involved in the Two Mothers healing groups offered by From Death to Life. “If a mom comes and that day is really hard for her, we give that mom the attention. It’s a whole lot easier when it’s around people that you know are going through what you’ve gone through,” she says.
“One of the main problems for moms on both sides is that family is not there. I think it’s because we’re not really trained how to deal with these different tragedies.”
Relatives might realize that it’s the birthday of a deceased child, for example, but they don’t call the mother because they are worried they will upset her. But that’s not the case at all. “The mothers would be so happy — if there’s tears, they would be happy tears — that somebody thought about their child,” Johnson-Roy says.
Johnson-Roy’s story has another unexpected twist. After sharing her story at a local church, Ed Roy, a man whose son was murdered, approached her for help with forgiveness. In 2015, they married. Israel was a groomsman in the wedding.
Looking forward, Johnson-Roy would love to see From Death to Life expand to include groups for fathers, and to create a safe place for youth who have witnessed or experienced violence. “They need to be able to talk about it. We just can’t keep all this closed up inside of us. We’ve got to be able to share,” she says. “We’ve got to forgive and be able to move on.”
Risking Light documentary
Tuesday, November 19, 7:00pm to 9:00pm
Riverview Theater (3800 42nd Avenue S., Mpls, 55406)
Risking Light is a thought-provoking documentary that explores resilience, and the painful process of moving from grief to compassion and forgiveness. From the streets of Minneapolis, the aboriginal lands of Australia, and the killing fields of Cambodia come the powerful stories of three people who had the courage to step out of the haunting, tragic darkness of the past, risking everything to reach the light of their own compassion. Risking Light was a Best of Fest winner at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
After the film, stay for remarks by Mary Johnson-Roy, a Minneapolis resident, whose story of meeting and forgiving the man who murdered her son is featured in the film. There will be a restorative justice resource fair in the lobby.