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The Transforming Power of Forgiveness


In February 1993, Mary Johnson's son, Laramiun Byrd, 20, was shot in the head by 16-year-old Oshea Israel after an argument at a party in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Israel, who was involved with drugs and gangs, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 and a half years. He served 17 before being released.

He now lives back in the neighborhood where he grew up - next door to the mother of the young man he murdered. Mrs. Johnson, 59, has shown the ultimate forgiveness - by inviting her son's killer to live next door. She now lives in the apartment adjoining the home of 34-year-old Oshea Israel and they share a porch.

Mrs. Johnson said she originally wanted justice and to see Israel locked up for what he had done. She said: 'My son was gone. I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother. '[The murder] was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was.'

She decided to found a support group and counseled mothers whose children had been killed and encouraged them to reach out to the families of their murderers, who were victims of another kind. 'Hurt is hurt, it doesn't matter what side you are on,' she said.

Then just a few years ago, the 59-year-old teacher and devout Christian, asked if she could meet Israel at Minnesota's Stillwater state prison. She said she felt compelled to see if there was a way in which she could forgive her son's killer.

At first he refused but then nine months later, changed his mind. Israel said he was shocked by the fact she wanted to meet him. He said: 'I believe the first thing she said to me was, ''Look, you don't know me. I don't know you. Let's just start with right now.'' 'And I was befuddled myself.'

The pair met regularly after that. When Israel was released from prison around 18 months ago, Mrs. Johnson introduced him to her landlord - who with her blessing, invited Israel to move into the building.

Mrs. Johnson and Israel are now close friends, a situation that she puts down to her strong religious beliefs but says she also has a selfish motive. She said: 'Unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. 'It's not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he's done. Yes, he murdered my son - but the forgiveness is for me.' Mary Johnson even wears a necklace with a two-sided locket - on one side are photos of herself and her son; the other has a picture of Israel.

Israel admits he still struggles with the extraordinary situation he finds himself in. He said: 'I haven't totally forgiven myself yet, I'm learning to forgive myself. And I'm still growing toward trying to forgive myself.'

"I treat you as I would treat my son," Johnson says. "And our relationship is beyond belief."

"Well, my natural son is no longer here. I didn't see him graduate. Now you're going to college. I'll have the opportunity to see you graduate," Johnson says. "I didn't see him getting married. Hopefully one day, I'll be able to experience that with you."

Hearing her say those things, Israel says, gives him a reason to reach his goals.

"It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path," he says. "You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you — it's amazing."

Israel now hopes to prove himself to the mother of the man he killed. He works at a recycling plant during the day and goes to college at night. He says he's determined to payback Mrs. Johnson's clemency by contributing to society. He visits prisons and churches to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. Mrs. Johnson often joins him and they tell their story together.

"I know it's not an easy thing, you know, to be able to share our story together," Johnson says. "Even with us sitting here looking at each other right now, I know it's not an easy thing. So I admire that you can do this."

"I love you, lady."

"I love you too, son."

The Daily Mail
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