In the dark days following the trial of the boy who killed her son, Mary Johnson stumbled upon a poem that continues to resonate, especially during Holy Week, and to shape her life.
The poem was an imagined conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the mother of Judas Iscariot as they talked of the pain of losing their sons.
The year before, in 1993, 16-year-old Marlon Green shot Johnson's only child, Laramuin Byrd, in the head during a house party. During Green's sentencing, Johnson hugged the boy's mother and told Green that she forgave him. Yet, for 12 years doubt lingered: Did she really?
"I was angry and hated this boy, hated his mother," Johnson said. "[The murder] was like a tsunami. Shock. Disbelief. Hatred. Anger. Hatred. Blame. Hatred. I wanted him to be caged up like the animal he was."
She looked for justice, then solace, but found neither.
So, Johnson founded a support group, From Death to Life: Two Mothers Coming Together for Healing, based in part on that poem. She counseled mothers whose children had been killed and encouraged them to reach out to the families of their murderers, who were victims of another kind.
"Hurt is hurt, it doesn't matter what side you are on," she said.
Johnson had relied on her faith to get her through, and she knew that to be forgiven, she had to truly forgive. So she did something frightening and remarkable. She asked to meet Green in prison.
At first, he refused. Prison is not a place to appear vulnerable, so many advised Green to ignore Johnson.
But when she asked again nine months later, he said yes.
In preparation for the meeting, restorative justice workers from the Department of Corrections held several preview meetings with Green and Johnson to gauge their motives. Johnson met with female inmates at the prison in Shakopee and saw a little of herself in some of them.
"That's when my heart began to change," she said. "I began to see them as people, not animals."
The day she met Green remains clear, down to the hand lotion someone handed her while she waited to see him. It was called "Beyond Belief," and it summed up her feelings at the time.
"Honestly, I didn't know what I was going to do," she said.
Green had changed, physically and mentally, in the 12 years. Slowly, they began to tells stories. He talked about his life, details of which she promised to keep private. She talked about Laramuin, the son she had lost. Before she left, she turned to Green: "I forgive you from the bottom of my heart," she said.
Green asked incredulously, "Ma'am, how can you do that?"
As they parted, he said, "Ma'am, can I hug you?" They hugged, and Johnson sobbed so hard that Green had to hold her up.
That's when she felt it: "All that stuff, all that junk deep inside me. I felt it rise up from the bottom of my feet and leave me. Like nothing I have ever felt before," she said. "I had loosed him, and let him go." The meeting was a resurrection, of sorts, of the person she used to be.
Since that day, the two have met many times and have spoken together to inmates to show the power of repentance and forgiveness. Green will likely be released in about a year, and Johnson hopes they can work together to spread their message.
"It has taken a lot of courage for him to do this,'' Johnson said. "He's a changed person, and he's going to do well, I declare that.
"I have claimed him as my spiritual son," she said. "It's not pardoning what he did, and it's not reconciliation. It's true forgiveness."
Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702