Isaura Mendes goes for long walks every day. She leaves her home near Uphams Corner in Dorchester and heads up to Dudley Street, past St. Patrick’s, onto Blue Hill Avenue, tuning out the urban din all around her.
Not long ago, while she was walking, a man honked his horn, pulled his car over, jumped out, and went toward her.
“Mother Mendes,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
It was a man she had visited in prison years before. He was doing well. Has a job. Has a car. Goes to church. He thanked her. He hugged her.
“It made my heart feel warm,” Isaura Mendes said.
Hers is a heart that has felt every possible emotion. She lost two of her three sons long before their time. Her Bobby was 23 in 1995 when he was stabbed to death just around the corner from her house.
Eleven years later, her son Matthew was shot and killed. He was 24 and died not far from where his big brother fell.
A year after Matthew was killed, police tracked down the man who stabbed Bobby. After 12 years on the run, Nardo Lopes, whose family lives right around the corner from the Mendes family, was convicted of killing Bobby. At Lopes’s sentencing for manslaughter, Isaura Mendes surprised everyone, maybe even herself, when she turned to the man who killed her son and said she forgave him.
“I wish you luck, Nardo,” she said. “I have asked God to protect you in jail. I forgive you for everything you’ve done.”
Some people said she was crazy. But it wasn’t just some grief-stricken grasp at nobility. She really meant it.
“What pushed me to forgiveness? I started reading the Bible a lot,” Isaura Mendes says, sitting on the front porch of her house, which is awash in purple flowers. “I took a class on the seven principles of peace: courage, hope, faith, love, unity, justice, forgiveness. For some people, those are just words. But for me it became a way to live.”
After Nardo Lopes went off to prison, so did Isaura Mendes. She stood before 200 inmates at the state prison in Norfolk and told her story. It was liberating, cathartic.
She started doing it regularly. Over the last seven years, she has visited prisons in Concord, Norfolk, Bridgewater. She went to the Suffolk County House of Correction in South Bay and recognized some of the young men. She visits prisons on her sons’ birthdays.
“When Bobby turned 40, I met with 40 men in Bridgewater,” she said. “On his 41st birthday, I met with 41.”
Isaura Mendes is 64 and looks 10 years younger. She visits prisoners every other week. Typically, the groups are 15 to 25 at a time.
“They call me Mother Mendes,” she says. “I ask for their stories.”
In the years since her sons were killed, she has remembered them with annual Christmas parties and peace walks and candlelight vigils.
In a few weeks, Isaura Mendes will host her annual back-to-school barbecue on her block. She hands out pencils and notebooks to the neighborhood kids. “It’s not much,” she said. “I don’t have any money. But I want the children to know we care about them. We love them.”
She says the same to the inmates she visits.
“I’m not there to judge them,” she said. “I’m there to tell them they are loved, that they can live a good, decent life. I think we forget how important it is to tell people in prison that there is redemption. They can change. We all can change.”
Isaura Mendes has no problem with Nardo Lopes being released from prison, now that his sentence for killing her Bobby is finished. She wishes him well. She hopes he leads a good, productive life from now on.
“If you can forgive someone,” she says, “you will be forgiven.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified who Isaura Mendes, the mother of two murder victims, had seen recently in her Dorchester neighborhood. Mendes said she had seen the father of Nardo Lopes, the man convicted in 2008 of killing in her son Bobby.