By Robert Mann
Few of us can fathom the emotional scene that unfolded in a Baton Rouge courtroom on Sept. 9. A judge handed down a prison sentence to Michael A. Rushing for the 2012 rape and kidnapping of a 22-year-old Baton Rouge woman, as well as for the 2000 rape and kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl.
Rushing received 40 years, but he also received forgiveness. The now-24-year-old rape victim embraced Rushing’s wife and forgave Rushing for his despicable act.
This poignant story prompted me to ask, What is my own capacity for forgiveness?
For example, could I forgive a man who murdered or raped one of my children? I don’t know that I could, but that question led to me to another remarkable woman whose capacity for love and forgiveness should humble us all.
In 2005, Mary Johnson didn’t know what to expect when she went to Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison to see the man, Oshea Israel, who was serving a 25-year sentence for the 1993 murder of her 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd.
The meeting went well. They shared their stories. Finally, in a moment of grace, Johnson said, “I forgive you from the bottom of my heart.” As they parted that day, Israel asked Johnson if he could give her a hug. Johnson began to cry and started to fall. “The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can, just hug you like I would my own mother,” Israel recalled to Johnson in a joint interview for “Story Corps” in 2011.
“After you left the room,” Johnson told Israel, “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.”
When Israel gained his freedom in 2010, Johnson was waiting for him. For three years, Israel lived next door to her. A friendship, forged during subsequent prison visits, was solid and deep. Johnson now says her son’s murderer is “my spiritual son.”
Intrigued and awed by their story of supernatural love (which I discovered on the “Story Corps” website), I phoned Johnson to learn more about how she has redeemed the tragic events of 1993. Beyond her miraculous friendship with Israel, Johnson, 62, is devoted to bringing together the mothers of murdered children and the mothers of children who have committed murder. Through her organization “From Death to Life,” two “healing groups” of mothers – separate now, but soon to merge – meet at Minneapolis’ St. Jane House several times each month.
She will not compare her pain to theirs. “Pain is pain. Grief is grief. Loss is loss,” she told me, speaking of the mothers whose sons are alive but in prison. “I can’t say that my pain is greater because my son is gone. She’s lost her child, too, but he’s in prison. That’s the only difference.”
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