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'I knew I needed to forgive, but I was struggling'

Tayo and Jason O'Shea tell Sarah Olowofoyeku how losing a relative to knife crime made them want to spread a message of forgiveness

It’s natural to want vengeance, but forgiveness is about letting go of that

WHEN her 15-year-old brother was murdered outside his school, Tayo O’Shea reacted as any big sister would – she wanted revenge. But instead of seeking it, she was guided down a different path.

Along with her husband and her mother, Tayo now goes into primary schools in the London Borough of Lewisham to lead an initiative called Operation Forgiveness.

‘When my brother died, I was not only grieving, but I also felt a lot of anger, hate and negativity. I knew I needed to forgive, but I was struggling with the idea of forgiving my brother’s killers, and kept putting it to the side.’

Tayo believes that God showed her how important it was for her to forgive.

‘One day my daughter gave me hug,’ she says, ‘and I realised that the love I would usually feel wasn’t there – I felt cold. God was lovingly telling me I was feeling that way because I hadn’t forgiven the killers. So that was part of my process of being able to move forward and to forgive.’

Tayo and her family wanted something good to come from her brother’s death. Her husband, Jason, explains: ‘We wanted this negative thing to have a positive ripple effect. We see this as his legacy. He told his mum that he wanted to work with young people, so now we’re doing it on his behalf.’

In 2011, soon after the death of her brother, Tayo and her family were going into prisons to share their story of despair, forgiveness and hope. On one occasion, a prisoner asked them if they were telling their story in schools. ‘We told him we weren’t,’ says Tayo. ‘He said if he had heard such a story as ours when he was in school, maybe he wouldn’t be in prison.

‘This happened more than once, and then we felt it was right to start working specifically in schools. However, it was a number of years before that happened.’

It was in 2017 that the door to working in schools was finally opened through a partnership with London City Mission. Operation Forgiveness was created for children aged nine and ten. Each session begins with an icebreaker and then a video is played.

‘The video shows clips of my little brother as he was growing up,’ says Tayo. ‘As the children watch, they build a connection with him.’

Jason says: ‘They see him as a little boy, laughing, at birthdays, they see him crying when his dad died. Then the video goes on to his memorial, and they realise that he’s not here any more. That’s really powerful. Then we sit and tell the children the story.’

Tayo admits that it is difficult to relive the incident every time she speaks to a new group, but she has been able to cope. ‘God has been gracious in that I’ve found healing through talking about it and seeing the impact our work is having.’

When Tayo’s brother was stabbed, he was the 13th teenager to be killed in London that year. One of the aims of Operation Forgiveness is to prevent knife crime so that other families do not have to experience loss. As well as focusing on forgiveness, the team encourage the children not to pick up a knife or carry one around with them.

The initiative also explores what forgiveness is – something Jason admits that he has had to learn himself.

‘For years I didn’t really know what it meant to forgive,’ he says. ‘Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that what they have done is OK. There will still be hurt and consequences. But it means that you are not carrying the negativity any longer.’

Tayo adds: ‘It’s natural to want vengeance, to want to take control and do something to hurt the person who has done wrong. But forgiveness is about letting go of that.’

The team has seen the impact of their message in classrooms.

‘At one school, a little girl said she wanted to forgive the man who killed her mum,’ says Jason. ‘She had learnt what forgiveness was and wanted to let her negative feelings go.’

As the initiative continues to affect their community, the couple’s hope for the future is that they can take their training to people in churches in other communities. They want as many people as possible to hear the message of hope and forgiveness.

Jason is also keen to remind people that, though there are consequences for perpetrators of crime, there can still be hope for them as well.

‘Yes, they must go to prison and they must deal with the consequence,’ he says, ‘but the hope is that things will change for them and that they can make positive contributions to the community.’

Tayo agrees. ‘We wrote to the boys who killed my brother to let them know that we’d forgiven them,’ she says. ‘We wanted them to know that there is hope and that there is still life when they are released.’

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