A forgiveness beyond belief 

Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie poses with Oshea Israel
Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie poses with Oshea Israel (left) and Mary Johnson-Roy (right), whose incredible story of forgiveness is documented in the forthcoming book Beyond Belief by Ray Richardson.

It’s a soulful and spiritual partnership between a white nun, who sought to explore the privilege from the color of her skin, and a black mother, who wanted relief from the anger and resentment toward the man who killed her son.

It’s the story of Sister Mary Margaret McKenzie, 91, who asked her Visitation community of North Minneapolis to commission a book about Mary Johnson-Roy, 67, and her journey toward forgiving the man who killed her 20-year-old son, Laramiun Byrd, Feb. 12, 1993, in North Minneapolis.

The book, Beyond Belief, will be published early next year. The author, Ray Richardson, is a former Pioneer Press reporter. To write the book, he spent hours interviewing both Johnson-Roy and Oshea Israel, the then-16-year-old who shot and killed her child. He also searched through court records and talked to prison authorities.

In the book, Richardson writes about the final moments of the meeting between Johnson-Roy and Israel in Stillwater Prison before he was released in 2010:

“Ma’am, before I go, may I give you a hug?” Oshea asks.

Mary’s head tilts slightly in amazement. This is the last thing she expected as part of her mission. The man who killed her son wants to give her a hug.

Johnson-Roy responded with a yes and her life was forever changed. 

“I just hugged the man who murdered my son. I think I really have forgiven this man. Oh, my God.” 

Richardson writes: Mary is standing straight. Her arms are elevated, palms up. Eyes now open. If the ceiling wasn’t blocking Mary’s view, she would be looking straight into heaven, perhaps telling Laramiun, “Son, I’m okay. I’m at peace now.”

Mary with Mary
Mary Margaret McKenzie with Mary Johnson-Roy

Sister McKenzie became intimately aware of gun violence in North Minneapolis when she showed up for street vigils for the youthful victims, many of them organized by then-Ward 5 Alderman Don Samuels. She noticed the same people were always giving the same messages, and wondered where the mothers were.

Then she met Johnson-Roy who had just organized From Death to Life (fromdeathtolife.us), which hosts “healing groups” for mothers whose children have been murdered and mothers whose children have committed murder. 

Johnson-Roy asked McKenzie to be on her board and she immediately accepted.

“It is important for people to know the stories of all these mothers,” McKenzie said. “In the end, it is about forgiveness, and forgiveness defines our souls.” 

Johnson-Roy credits McKenzie with teaching her about what it means to be a nun: In her case, sometimes funny, occasionally sharp, always real.

“She is truly MY Sister,” Johnson-Roy said. “She said she’d once spoke in tongues. I sometimes speak in tongues. She shows me how to live: Be open. Be honest. Be loving. Be present.” 

Johnson-Roy has done that, partnering with Oshea Israel after he was released from prison in 2010 to talk about forgiveness to groups throughout the Twin Cities and across the country on national TV news shows.

In fact, Mary and the Sisters hosted a welcome home party at their house for Oshea after his release. They encircled him and promised their support. Sister Karen Mohan recalls she told Oshea she would pray for him and she’s done that every day since. 

Beyond Belief is the tangible, readable result of the relationship between the two Marys. Their spiritual gift to seniors like me is a bit more elusive, something about the grace of forgiveness leading to a gentler and more hopeful world.

They tell me you do this by shedding resentments, accepting responsibility and seeking reconciliation. Underlying it all is the advice from the Visitation’s founder, Saint Francis de Sales: Be who you are, and be that well. 

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to dnimmer@mngoodage.com.