10:00pm

Thu May 19, 2011
StoryCorps

Forgiving Her Son's Killer: 'Not An Easy Thing'

Originally published on Fri July 17, 2015 11:09 am

It would be easy — expected, even — for Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel to be enemies. After all, he killed Johnson's only son, in 1993. He went to prison for that — and toward the end of his sentence, he and Johnson made peace.

As a teenager in Minneapolis, Israel was involved with gangs and drugs. One night at a party, he got into a fight with Laramiun Byrd, 20, and shot and killed him. Oshea is now 34; he finished serving his prison sentence for murder about a year and a half ago.

Israel recently visited StoryCorps with Johnson, to discuss their relationship — and the forgiveness it is built upon. As Johnson recalls, their first face-to-face conversation took place at Stillwater Prison, when Israel agreed to her repeated requests to see him.

"I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you," Johnson tells Israel. "But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son."

"And he became human to me," Israel says.

At the end of their meeting at the prison, Johnson was overcome by emotion.

"The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can," Israel says, "just hug you like I would my own mother."

Johnson says, "After you left the room, I began to say, 'I just hugged the man that murdered my son.'

"And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you — I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you."

Johnson founded From Death To Life: Two Mothers Coming Together for Heal­ing, a support group for mothers who have lost their children to violence.

And for Israel, Johnson's forgiveness has brought both changes and challenges to his life.

"Sometimes I still don't know how to take it," he says, "because I haven't totally forgiven myself yet. It's something that I'm learning from you. I won't say that I have learned yet, because it's still a process that I'm going through."

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

In fact, the two live right next door to one another in Minneapolis.

"So you can see what I'm doing — you know firsthand," Israel says.

And if he falls out of touch, Israel is sure to hear about it from Johnson — who calls out to him, he says, "'Boy, how come you ain't called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You ain't even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!' "

"Uh-huh," Johnson says with a laugh.

"I find those things funny, because it's a relationship with a mother for real," Israel says.

"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."

But Israel is not the only one who's impressed.

"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."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Friday morning. Time for StoryCorps, the project that records conversations between loved ones and friends. Today, we'll hear from two people who could very easily have been enemies. As a teenager, Oshea Israel was involved with gangs and drugs. One night at a party, he got into a fight with another boy and killed him. Oshea is now 34, and has finished serving his prison sentence for murder. He came to StoryCorps with Mary Johnson, the mother of the boy he killed.

Ms. MARY JOHNSON: You and I met at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remember from court - where I wanted to go over and hurt you. But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.

Mr. OSHEA ISRAEL: And he became human to me. You know, where I admitted to you, it was like OK, this guy is real. And then when it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. And the initial thing to do was just try to hold you up as best I can, just hug you like I would my own mother, you know.

Ms. JOHNSON: After you left the room, I began to say, I just hugged the man that murdered my son. And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years, for you - I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.

Mr. ISRAEL: As far as a receiver in forgiveness from you, sometimes I still don't know how to take it because I haven't totally forgiven myself yet. It's something that I'm learning from you. I won't say that I have learned yet because it's still a process that I'm going through.

Ms. JOHNSON: I treat you as I would treat my son. And our relationship is beyond belief. We live next door to one another.

Mr. ISRAEL: Yeah, so you can see what I'm doing you know firsthand. We actually bump into each other all the time, leaving in and out of the house. And you know, our conversations, they come from boy, how come you ain't called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You ain't even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: Um-hum.

Mr. ISRAEL: I find those things funny because this is a relationship with a mother, for real.

Ms. JOHNSON: 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. I didn't see him get married. Hopefully, one day, I'll be able to experience that with you.

Mr. ISRAEL: Just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner which you are, is my motivation. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you - it's amazing.

Ms. JOHNSON: I know it's not an easy thing, you know, to be able to share our story together. 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.

Mr. ISRAEL: I love you, lady.

Ms. JOHNSON: I love you too, son.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Mary Johnson with Oshea Israel, at StoryCorps in Minneapolis. The conversation will be archived - along with all StoryCorps interviews - at the Library of Congress. And the podcast is at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.