Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Claiming Connection: Finding Family, Hope and Faith with a Man who Committed Murder

The following was originally written as a blog for the Visitation Monastery of North Minneapolis. I post it here to share with friends, family, outside the Visitation Community and network. I welcome your thoughts or responses.

On Saturday, April 17, I sat in the living room of St. Jane House in North Minneapolis and listened to Oshea Israel tell his story of what shaped him as a young man who committed murder at the age of 17. Seated next to him were his brother and mother, and present across the room was a grandmother. None of these people were biologically, blood-related, but all claimed him in the fullest sense of familial relationship. Included in this configuration of chosen kinfolk was Oshea's dearest male alliance -- someone who shared the experiences of incarceration and an aligned sort of upbringing; a Visitation Sister on the day before her 82 birthday - who had only recently adopted Oshea as grandson; and then the most-staggering of all maternal figures: the mother of the son whose life Oshea took 17 years prior. In the wake of Mary Johnson losing her own male child, she found the space and grace and God-given ability - during the time after his murder - to genuinely forgive this boy who killed her son, and then claim the murderer as her own heir.

It was an experience nothing short of mind-blowing.

What makes us family?
What calls us to radical spaces of love and forgiveness?
How many of us find ourselves in close proximity to murderers and former felons and forgivers?
How do we locate ourselves inside such circles?
Who among us claims such alliances? And why?

By the end of the afternoon, I found myself kissing Oshea's cheeks, squeezing him in solidarity and support, and marveling about what, if anything - save experience - separates us? He could be my brother. He could be my cousin. He could be me. Yes. Or rather, I can fathom being him.

I don't write such things lightly. But listening to Oshea's narrative, honoring intensely an interrogated past, I find myself completely humbled by his courageous examination of what has shaped him. In this space, on this particular Saturday in April, I have the privilege to hear him disclose such a tale as he pours out details about what gave way to birthing this murderous mentality. And I get him. I can hear him. I can fathom all that he reports about his loving biological mom; a nurturing, present step-father, and a desired alliance with his often absent, distant dad. I quake with compassion as he confesses the tiny but gigantic detail that gives rise, in his recollection, to a desire to kill when he was only five. Oshea shares the significant moment when he overheard his mom state that she was raped by her own father. He identifies that at that point in time he knew he wanted to kill, and would kill. He reflects on the choices he started to make from that tender age onward, giving rise and shape to an identity as "fighter" as "boy capable of murder." He is conscious and takes responsibility for this journey that lead to another young man's death. He also recognizes and knows that this is not his true identity. He has the wisdom and faith and courage and humility to claim that he has a soul larger than this horrible crime, but knows he is loved and has love, is love, and has a Divine purpose transcending this experience.

I marvel listening to Oshea. I am in this privileged space where I find an alliance and deep resonance with this man's tale. I have deep regard for him, am humbled by his tale, am proud of his capacity to receive forgiveness and to reject this label that reduces him to one of his darkest moments. Oshea Israel inspires me.

I think that if Oshea Israel can transcend label as "murderer," then what can I overcome? What are my darkest moments in this life to date? What do I shake from my skin and bones and refuse to let define me as a 41 year old woman? I return to Oshea and see his beaming smile, feel his large spirit and seemingly boundless hope for the future, and I claim a similar kind of faith. He is loved. I am loved. We are love. We are one in God's creation.

I don't think these experiences or opportunities to sit in the presence of "the other" - a former felon or convicted killer or simply someone seemingly so different - come often for many of us. I imagine or speculate that what I'm sharing might seem beyond the comfort zone of many. But I can't be sure. I just know for me, the opportunity to be invited to such a space with the Visitation Sisters, at St. Jane House, to convene with compassionate inquiry and active listening guiding the day, is a privilege -- as it takes me to these further spaces of reflection and awareness of God's grace, love, mercy. I begin to see more distinctly our inherently inter-connected natures. I find myself alive in love and wonder. I want to support Oshea in his journey beyond jail, in his walk as a man of integrity, examined life, of forgiveness, of incredible wisdom and witness to Love. I want to be similar in my own trek on this planet: also inspiring and living a radical kind of loving existence.

If I shirk my darkest moments of reductive identity markers, and claim the beloved nature of my soul, then what might I be capable of as a member of this human race?
Who might I be as a woman? As a wife? As a mother? As a teacher? What might I inspire or have the courage to do?

I extend these questions to each of you prayerfully on this day. I invite you to reflect on your darkest moments, to see your most beautiful selves, as the Divine sees us all. I urge you to open any closed spaces where you might reject or fear an invitation to experience life beyond your comfort zone. I encourage you to come and hear Oshea and Mary speak, and listen deeply to the way their story shapes or inspires your own.

In prayer, contemplation, love,
Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde