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Melius family’s mercy changed the direction of his life 18 years ago

By Lonnie Ellis
Washington, D.C.
(formerly of rural Glencoe)
Rural Minnesota lost a vibrant and generous leader when Kim Melius of Winthrop passed away on Nov. 23. 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 18 years ago.
The story begins with senseless violence. In 1997, I was among 22 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 50 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 perpetrators 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 Meliuses’ 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 put my own body between victim and violence.
Four years later, with my transformation well under way, I set off for a college semester abroad in India. I learned that among the 15 students from Gustavus Adolphus College was a student from Winthrop I felt was likely the sister of Ben Melius. I had to tell her. On the first day of our trip, as we were just getting to know each other, I asked Ambryn Melius if she was indeed related to Ben. I told her I was there the night her brother was beaten. “You didn’t have to tell me that,” Ambryn responded. Like her parents, she didn’t turn away from me. We continued to become good friends and have remained 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, D.C. 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 18 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.