Honoring a Life That Changed Mine by Lonnie Ellis
Last summer, at the Rock Bend Folk Festival, I met a man named Dana Melius. Dana works for the St. Peter Herald and we ran into each other a time or two after that and then because Facebook friends. Once, each of us had bought the same book twice accidentally, so we traded. I had two copies of Humans of New York: Stories and he had two copies of Dreams Of My Mothers: A Story Of Love Transcendent. So, we swapped but he tucked two dollars into his book because he thought he was getting a better deal.
A couple months later, Dana's young wife died unexpectedly from complications of cancer surgery. It was tragic and her death touched me as I read the poignant posts written by Dana and his children mourning the loss of their wife and mother.
Then one day, another post crossed my Facebook path. A post written by a man who had an experience with the Melius family years before. It was a stunning story of violence, mercy, reconciliation, and redemption. I thought it was so important to share it in light of the debates we are having in our country on gun violence and refugees. I finally contacted Lonnie Ellis, the author, to as if we could share it here. He was happy to have us do that. I'll preface his powerful piece of writing with a comment he wrote beneath the piece on Facebook. He believes in the transformative power of stories, and so do we.
Many of you have not heard this story, or heard it so fully. I only began talking about it in my late 20s. I think its because its taken a long time to start to understand who I was then. In my 20s I didn't really think of myself as the same person who participated in some really serious violence as a teenager, sometimes even as the aggressor. I think I had to understand it myself in order to share it. Another factor - I had the notion that it was ideas that were important now, that I should just talk about ideas and philosophy as the motivators. I've learned that its our stories that transform and that people need to hear these stories.
Honoring a Life That Changed Mine
A revised version of this was published as an op-ed in Winthrop News.
Rural Minnesota lost a vibrant and generous leader when Kim Melius of Winthrop passed away on November 23rd. Many knew her as a dedicated mother, social worker, and hospice caretaker. Kim and the Melius family impacted me under very different circumstances. I grieve her death knowing my life would be immensely different if not for the compassionate decision Kim and her family made eighteen years ago.
The story begins with senseless violence. In 1997, I was among twenty-two young men who drove from Glencoe to Winthrop looking to retaliate for an assault on one of our friends. In a dark yard, I stood by and watched as my friends viciously beat two young men. Some distance away, a third young man was ambushed, knocked unconscious, and savagely beaten with as many as fifty blows to the head and body. This young man was Kim’s son, Ben. He suffered a cracked skull and massive swelling in the brain. He could have died.
Sometime during the scary, painful days that followed for Ben, his mother Kim, and father Dana, they had to make a decision about pursuing justice. The other perpetators and I faced three felony assault and rioting charges. Many of us had been involved with violent acts and legal problems before. You would think the family would want to lock us up and throw away the key, but the Melius family chose a path of restorative justice instead. They sought healing for the victims, the perpetrators, and the wider communities of Glencoe and Winthrop. Where did they find the mercy? Where did they find the hope?
The restorative justice process put the perpetrators, victims, and our families in a room together for several hours, face-to-face. I had to bear witness to the real human suffering I’d caused. With every story, the consequences of our violence broke into my consciousness. I remember the strong and gracious Melius family standing in the center of it all and was inspired by them. With my mother crying by my side, I stood up and said, “I didn’t throw any punches, but I am not innocent. I contributed to a group mentality where we could do terrible things. I stood by.” I, along with the other perpetrators, did many days of community service and paid for damages. We spent hours with Dana writing an op-ed for the papers trying to bring healing to the communities shaken by our violence.
I know that felony convictions would have permanently altered the course of our young lives. We would have faced a lifetime of challenges beginning with college admission, housing, and gainful employment. But at greater risk were our souls, and this event and the Melius’ choice began a permanent transformation in mine.
I began wanting to be a different kind of person. I wanted to be the kind of person who would have stopped my friends that night—who would have even been willing to put my own body between victim and violence.
Four years later, with my transformation well underway, I set off for a college semester abroad in India. I learned that among the fifteen students from Gustavus Adolphus College was a student from Winthrop I felt must be the sister of Ben Melius. On our first day, I pulled Ambryn Melius aside.
“I think you might be the sister of Ben Melius.”
“Yes,” she said as she nodded.
“I was there that night. I was there the night your brother was beaten.”
She waited for what seemed like a long time. Then she responded, “You didn’t have to tell me that.”
Like her parents, she didn’t turn away from me. We became real friends and have continued to deepen our friendship over the years and are still close to this very day.
Over the next decade and a half, I became a faith-based community organizer, got a master’s degree in theology, and now serve as associate director of a national Catholic social justice organization in Washington, DC. All the while, Ambryn and the Melius family invited me into their home. There, I saw more of the incredible wisdom, grace, and love that enabled them to make that extraordinary decision eighteen years ago.
Kim, Ben, and Dana dared to hope for strangers who caused great pain in their family, even when we didn’t hold a lot of hope for ourselves. That changed my life. I could never thank Kim Melius enough for her part in it, but I try the best way I know how—by striving to live up to her example.Lonnie Ellis, Washington, DC (formerly of rural Glencoe)