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He killed her son; she forgave him

Ruben Rosario

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 12/24/10

Christmas Eve is here. Many of us will likely gather tonight and break bread with family and friends in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. I trust quite a few among us will hold hands around the table. We will bow our heads in prayer, and someone will utter invocations about peace, forgiveness and loving your neighbor as well as your enemy.

Which brings me to one such gathering that will put to the test those stated intentions for some and affirm them for others. Let me explain.

In 1993, Mary Johnson's only child, Laramiun Byrd, was shot to death during a dispute at a house party in Minneapolis. His daughter, Rosalynda, now 17, was born five months later.

Byrd's killer was Marlon Green, then a 16-year-old kid juggling a chaotic life as a reputed street gang member as well as a respected conflict-resolution peer at his high school. Green, who had no previous criminal record, was convicted as an adult of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Though a woman of deep faith, Johnson long thought of her 20-year-old son's killer as a cold-blooded animal. She exchanged harsh words with his mother, Carole Green, during the trial.

But tonight, Johnson will spend Christmas Eve and share a meal with the man who killed her son -- a 34-year-old man now known as Oshea Israel and whom she regards as her "spiritual son."

Johnson also befriended Carole Green, 54, who came by bus this week from her home in a Chicago suburb. This will be the first time this woman will spend the holidays with her only child, released from prison this summer. Johnson and Green now regard each other as sisters forever bonded by this tragedy.

"The first time I heard Mary's story, I was moved to tears," said Brian Mogren, director of St. Jane House in North Minneapolis, a place that in recent years has seen far more than its share of violence and loss of too many troubled souls.

The urban community retreat center is operated by the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis. It's also home to From Death to Life, a 5-year-old restorative-justice and support group founded by Johnson that attempts to bring together parents of victims and perpetrators. Johnson, 58, also works as a parent liaison at a Plymouth-area high school.

"If there is one key message here, among others, to this inspirational story, it is that ... mothers and fathers on both sides of these tragedies aren't alone," said Mogren, who also serves on the board of Johnson's nonprofit outreach group. "There is a place they both can come to and share their stories."


But make no mistake. It's Johnson and her willingness to forgive that make this one heck of a Christmas tale.

"I commend her, and I think she's an extraordinary person," Carole Green said this week. "She's genuine, and her strength and ability to forgive no doubt comes from the tower of the Lord."

I first met Johnson four years ago. A few months earlier, she had tapped into the deeper roots of her religious convictions and met with Marlon Green, then serving his sentence in Stillwater prison.

Something miraculous happened that day. The two -- convicted killer and murder victim's mother --wrapped up their meeting with a tearful embrace.

"I never want to hurt you again," Green told Johnson then. "If I just communicated with (Byrd), if I just talked to him that night, this never would have happened."

The two kept in touch. Green spent his years in prison earning his GED and numerous certificates in various vocational disciplines, including baking.

His "life-changing" encounter with Johnson made him far more religious and Bible-learned.

He decided to change his name to Oshea Israel before his release last summer. Oshea is another name for Jacob, who in the Old Testament underwent a transformation after an epic wrestling match with an angel.

"Oshea means deliverance," he told me this week. "It means deliverance from the past, a new beginning, moving on."

Oshea and Johnson banded together after his release, speaking to schools, community organizations, prison inmates and others about their experience.

It's a dynamite message. One speaks about the journey from hate to love and the cleansing power of fathomless forgiveness. The other touches on remorse, atonement and redemption.


And they lived ... happily ever after? Get real. Israel, despite numerous applications and job interviews, has yet to land a job.

"It's a combination of things -- the economy, my felony conviction," he told me. His mother is grappling with serious health problems.

Meanwhile, Johnson's group labors to unite folks on both sides of such tragedies.

Now, if your son or daughter were murdered, would you want to sit down with the killer or his parents?

Most folks I know -- including me -- would say no. But then there's Johnson, Israel and Green to challenge those easy-to-say words with concepts that are extremely hard to put into practice when such incidents hit close to home.

Lasagna will be the main dinner course tonight. Carole Green in turn plans to cook up greens, turkey, sweet-potato pie and other goodies on Christmas Day to thank Johnson, Mogren, the religious order and others who are trying to help her son after his release.

"I have Mary to thank for this," she said. She did not specify which Mary: the mother of Jesus, or Johnson.

"No question that it takes time for a hurting parent to get to that place (forgiveness)," Johnson told me this week. "But I truly forgive Oshea. By that forgiveness, I have been set free from anger and bitterness. I consider him my son. He has two mothers now. I'm so grateful for God for what he has done."

Ruben Rosario can be reached at or 651-228-5454.

Mary and all of us involved with From Death To Life are grateful for the care and heart that Mr. Rosario brought to telling our story. Thank you!

Celebrating Christmas Eve 2010 at St. Jane House

Peace on earth and good will to all!