Mother of murdered son journeys from hate to healing Print E-mail
By Julie Pfitzinger - For The Catholic Spirit   
Wednesday, 14 January 2009
As a January sun streamed through the windows of St. Jane House, a retreat and meeting center in north Minneapolis, Mary Johnson spoke to a small group about another bitter winter day in February 1993 — a day that profoundly changed her life and launched an unexpected journey of life-giving healing and forgiveness.

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Mary Johnson leads a prayer walk to end violence in north Minneapolis. - Courtesy Brian Mogren, St. Jane House director
On Feb. 12 that year, Laramiun Byrd, Johnson’s 20-year-old son and only child, was murdered while attending an after-hours party in their north Minneapolis neighborhood. Police arrested his 16-year-old killer a few days later with the gun still in his possession.
The days following her son’s death were incredibly bleak for Johnson. “I didn’t believe my son was dead,” she said. “I got all the funeral things together, but I still didn’t believe he was dead.”

It was at the moment when she entered the funeral home that she said “reality slapped me in the face.”

After a two-year delay, the case was finally brought to trial. “What kept me going through that trial was the fact that I would be able to give an impact statement to the boy who killed Laramiun,” Johnson said. “I hated this boy. I wanted him to go to prison for the rest of his life. I wanted him to suffer.”

Searching for consolation

During the course of the trial, the judge changed the charges against the youth from first- to second-de­g­ree murder, reducing his subsequent prison sentence to 25 years.

And, delivering the impact statement didn’t offer John­son the satisfaction she was expecting. “I told him — and his mother — that I forgave him. I said I’m a Chris­tian woman and that’s what I’m supposed to do,” said Johnson, who knew she was far from a true place of forgiveness, saying now, “I was a Christian woman full of hatred.”

Meetings

• What: From Death to Life: Two Mothers and Two Dads Healing Groups.
• When: 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on the first and third Saturday of each month.
• Where: St. Jane House, a ministry of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis.  

For more information about the meetings or about From Death to Life ministry, contact Brian Mogren at St. Jane House at (612) 965-9446 or visit the Web site www.bewhoyouare.info/stjanehouse.
Searching for consolation from other mothers who had experienced the same type of loss, Johnson joined a local support group but didn’t find it helpful. Instead, she founded From Death to Life: Two Mothers Coming Together for Heal­ing, based in part on a poem she read after the trial about an imagined conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the mother of Judas Iscariot, and their shared pain over the loss of their sons.

As the years went on, Johnson decided she needed to speak with the young man who had murdered Laramiun.

“At first, he said no way. But about nine months later, he agreed to meet me,” recalled Johnson.

In preparation for the experience, she attended four “really hard” meetings with personnel from the Depart­ment of Corrections and several sessions with mothers of offenders who shared their own personal pain. “After that, I felt like my heart was beginning to change,” Johnson said.

Johnson vividly recalls the day of her prison visit, saying that at one point she broke down in tears near the entrance and didn’t think she could go through with it.

“My good friend who was with me sort of pushed me up the ramp,” Johnson said with a smile. “She knew I wasn’t just doing this for myself but for mothers of other murder victims, too.”

When the young man entered the room, Johnson didn’t recognize him at first because 12 years had passed. “I just knew we needed to lay a foundation,” Johnson explained. “He began to tell me about his life. I told him about Laramiun’s life because they never knew each other.”

Johnson realized the time had come to offer the young man the forgiveness she had professed to give after the trial. “I said to him that from the bottom of my heart, I had forgiven him. I needed to lose him, to let him go. I could no longer hold on to the unforgiveness in my heart,” she said.

It was at the conclusion of their meeting that Johnson experienced the overwhelming power of that forgiveness.

“He said to me, ‘Ma’am, may I hug you?’” she recalled. “In that embrace, I cried and cried because I knew I was truly broken, and I literally began falling to the floor. He held me up.

“When I stood up, from the soles of my feet, I felt something move through my body,” Johnson continued. “All the hatred, bitterness, animosity and anger had left me. I knew, I knew, I knew that I had forgiven him.”

Sharing their story

The pair has met frequently since that day and given presentations together in the prison. Johnson shares her story with other groups as well. The young man, who has been active in restorative justice programs, will be released in three years.

“The plan is that he will sit next to me to share his part of the story,” said Johnson. “I believe with all my heart this will happen.”

Today, Johnson refers to this man, whom she once hated, as her spiritual son. “It took me 12 years to get to the place I’m at. I’ve learned what it means to get to a place of healing and forgiveness,” she said. “I am so grateful for what God has done in my life.”

Visitation Sister Margaret Mc­Ken­zie, who first heard Johnson speak about her story two years ago at St. Philip in north Minneapolis, said she has “never heard a story where I felt a person was so connected with God’s grace. Each point along the way, God met her with a grace to get her to the other side and move her to the next step.

“She moved past death into life, and if that isn’t resurrection, I haven’t heard of it,” Sister Margaret added. “Resurrection is what is waiting on the other side of forgiveness.”