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Mary Johnson-Roy, who drew on faith to forgive the man who killed her son, dies at 71

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Mary Johnson-Roy, a woman who forgave her son’s killer and went on to inspire others to seek out mercy and compassion amid grief and contempt, died March 27. She had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in 2020. She was 71.

Johnson-Roy lost her only child, Laramiun Lamont Byrd, in a shooting in 1993. After years of anger that saw her leave her job of 20 years and wrestle with her Christian faith, Johnson-Roy came upon a poem that imagined a meeting between the mothers of Jesus and Judas Iscariot, his betrayer. The poem motivated her to consider restorative justice, and she arranged to meet Oshea Israel, the man who was convicted of shooting her son.

At the Stillwater prison in 2005, the two talked for two hours in a meeting that ended with Israel hugging a crying Johnson-Roy. From that day onward, Johnson-Roy said the burdens of her resentment and hatred had been lifted. It was life-changing as well for Israel, who after his release from prison became neighbors with Johnson-Roy, who viewed him like a son.

Moved to help others, Johnson-Roy in 2005 created From Death to Life, a nonprofit organization formed to spread her message about the power of forgiveness. She also led the Two Mothers Healing Group for mothers who lost children to homicide. The group reached out to the mothers of children convicted of homicide, and the two sets of mothers met regularly for healing, prayer walks, annual retreats and monthly “Code Red” events on West Broadway Avenue during which they invited the public to join their calls for peace.

“Mary was driven by her faith and obedient to God’s calling on her life to do this work,” said Brian Mogren, a friend who met Johnson-Roy 18 years ago when she shared her story with his church. He eventually opened his house as St. Jane House, which served as the meeting place for the Two Mothers Healing Group every other Saturday for the last 16 years. Johnson-Roy facilitated her last meeting there in January with the help of longtime friend Regina Irwin.

Johnson-Roy met her husband, Edward Roy, in church, and the two bonded after learning they each had lost a child to homicide. Roy’s son, Mandale Roy, was killed in Minneapolis in 1995.

“It just seemed like it was instant chemistry,” said Kesa Jones, Roy’s daughter. “My mama Mary always used to tell my dad he was special. She always used to say, ‘You are a special man,'” Jones said. “They built a beautiful friendship, and one day he told me, ‘I’m going to marry her.'” The two married in 2015.

“It took my dad a lot longer to come to grips with that, to come to that level of forgiveness, but once he got there that just made him love Mary even more,” Jones said.

Johnson-Roy’s life story eventually was shared with millions around the world via the CBS Evening News, the BBC, CNN, ABC’s The View, and numerous TV, newspaper, and magazine stories. She spoke at global conferences about love and forgiveness. She met then President Barack Obama.

In 2011, Johnson-Roy and Israel spoke about their lives for StoryCorps project, and the recording was added to a collection preserved at the U.S. Library of Congress. Their story became even more relevant the following year, when the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether giving life sentences to youths without the possibility of parole is excessive and unconstitutional. Johnson-Roy and Israel sat in attendance at the Supreme Court that day, and their story was among the documents the justices reviewed.

At the beginning, Israel said he didn’t understand what Johnson-Roy wanted to do when he first learned she wanted to come see him in prison. He felt it was important to agree to it, however. He said he felt moved to hug her at the end of that meeting, a moment Johnson-Roy came to regard as “beyond belief.”

That was the brand of skin lotion she used on her hands that day, said Israel, and together they began to use that phrase to talk about their lives. “It became a mother and son bond,” he said, “it was really authentic.”

He last saw her days before she died. “There’s a void now that I have,” he said. “I just lost a mother, a remarkable woman. It’s like she said, ‘beyond belief.'”

A celebration of Johnson-Roy’s life will take place April 13 at 11 a.m. at Shiloh Temple, 1201 W. Broadway Av., Minneapolis, with a public visitation an hour before. There will be a public visitation at Shiloh on April 12 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. The memorial service will be livestreamed, including in all Minnesota prisons.

Mayor Jacob Frey will declare April 13 as Mary Johnson-Roy Day in Minneapolis. A private internment at Crystal Lake Cemetery will take place at a later date.

The family asks that mourners, in lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Mary Johnson-Roy Legacy Fund. Johnson-Roy is survived by her husband, Edward Roy; siblings Otis Mays, Mildred Martin, and Leola Kirk; granddaughter Rosalynda Boykin; great granddaughter Za’Riyah Boykin; “spiritual son” Oshea Israel; Ed’s daughters Quiana, Kesa, Lelah, Lisa, Carrie, Lesandia and Kyla; and 32 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

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