To forgive is hard. Mary Johnson did, although she will quickly admit it took her almost a decade of bitterness to fully forgive Oshea Israel.
Johnson’s only son, Laramiun, was killed in 1993 at age 20. Israel later was found guilty and sentenced to prison for it.
Now, this unlikely pair is together, speaking to groups about forgiveness and redemption, justice and retribution, pain and healing. Despite the tragic events that unexpectedly brought them together, Johnson and Israel today essentially are now mother and son.
“I didn’t know that this was going to happen, but I am very grateful,” added the mother. “God revealed to me that this is my son. He doesn’t call me ‘Mother’ or ‘Mom’; he calls me Mary. But I’m the momma.”
“There are things in our lives that drive us to do things that are outside of our character, but it is up to us to take responsibility for ourselves and hold ourselves accountable in order to learn from those experiences,” explained Israel. “We are mother and son now, related by blood because of the shedding of blood. We are now family – we are kin now.”
Johnson and Israel spoke recently at a Youth Against Prisons (YAP) monthly meeting at Wayman A.M.E. Church. Johnson recalled perhaps the longest day of her life.
“I knew that death was around because of all the dreams I was having,” she said, thinking it was about her father. “My sister-in-law was asking me about my son Laramiun: ‘I don’t know if it’s true, but they are saying that Larumiun is dead, and that his body is at North Memorial,'” her sister-in-law told her.
“I didn’t get upset because she didn’t know if it was true or not.”
Several calls later, it was confirmed that her son was dead.
“I was wondering what was going on,” Johnson continued. “I remember God said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry about your child anymore. I have him.’
I don’t know what I did the rest of that night, but I know for that whole week I couldn’t do anything but what I needed to do to get ready for a funeral that I didn’t believe was going to take place. I did not believe that my son was dead.”
A few days later, Johnson learned that a 16-year-old young man was arrested for her son’s death. “In my eyes, he was an animal and…he deserved to be locked up in a cage for the rest of his life,” she recalled.
Later, during the trial, she told him that she forgave him. “I did that because I am a Christian woman, and because the Bible says in order to be forgiven, you must forgive. I am not going to say that I did it from my heart – I might have thought I did.”
Forgiveness finally came almost a dozen years later in 2005 when Johnson sought to meet her son’s killer face-to-face in Stillwater Prison. “Here is your opportunity to give your side of the story,” she told Israel.
“There were various things that led up to that stage in my life, and he happened to be there at that time where I was at the crossroads,” Israel noted.
Originally from Illinois, “I had a decent upbringing with my mom and stepfather,” he explained, adding that he often struggled with an internal “struggle/battle” as he lived in two different households.
“When I stayed with my mother and stepfather, I had to dress and act a certain way. When I [went] to my father’s house, I could be out all night long and do what I wanted to do – really no supervision.
“I started to run the streets and got kicked out of school, got introduced to the drug game and started selling drugs,” Israel continued, adding that as a teenager, he was sent to live in Minnesota to avoid the trouble he was getting into, but he soon was back at it in his new surroundings. “I [was] still out there selling drugs, fighting people and beating people up,” he noted.
That fateful night, the 16-year-old Israel was at an after-hours club.
Without getting into all the specifics, he pointed out, “I didn’t like the lifestyle I was living. I see this young man, and he and I exchanged a few words…I ended up shooting him.”
As it took Johnson years to forgive him, it took almost as long for Israel to see the errors of his ways as well. “I [was] doing the same things [in prison] that I was doing out here: a gang leader and selling drugs.”
After learning that Johnson wanted to see him, Israel admits at first he didn’t want to meet her: “Why should we communicate? Why should we do anything because I murdered her son [and] she’s his mom? What could we possibly have to talk about?”
Only after speaking with his mother and other relatives did Israel finally consent to meet Johnson. This meeting led to another, and they slowly got to know each other.
“I found out things about her son that parallel my life,” said Israel. “He and I walked the same tracks [and] had the same exact lifestyle. I told her that if I had taken the time to get to know him, we might have been the best of friends rather than the way it turned out. Yes, I did murder her son, but the one thing that caused her son to lose his life was that I didn’t value my life, so I didn’t value his life.”
Today, Johnson and Israel are living examples of forgiveness and redemption in action. Their main message, especially to young people, is that violence affects everybody.
“Everybody is hurting,” said Johnson. “I want them to understand what their mother [would] have to go through if she had to bury them or go to prison…”
“To show them that we don’t have to be who society, the media or people who don’t live in our situation causes us to be…” continued Israel.
“We are not animals, savages, drug dealers and dope heads – none of that. We can be positive.”
Now completing the remaining time of his 17-year sentence at a halfway house, Israel is scheduled for full release in June. “I am trying to put my life back on track,” he said. “It’s hard out here trying to find a job, but I am trying to find employment. But the thing that makes me feel good, regardless of what hardships I come upon, is the fact that I am giving back.”
Johnson, who founded a support group for both parents of victims as well as those parents of children who acted violently, is doing the same. “I am so grateful for what God has done in my life, what a change He’s made in my life,” she said.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.