Bearing witness to the pain of violence

Photo by Lissa Gotwals

When a faith-based organization realized its tactics were not accomplishing its goal of stopping violence, members tried a new approach: simply being with people who were suffering.

Update:Marcia Owen stepped down from her position at the RCND in 2016 but continues to be involved in the organization as a volunteer.

On a recent Sunday evening, several hundred people gathered under an open-air pavilion in Durham, N.C., to remember a young man murdered by a single gunshot to the back of his head.

As they made their way in, each person was handed a slender white candle.

A makeshift altar with a blown-up photo of a smiling JeJuan Taylor Jr. stood at the center of the pavilion; off to one side, a red cooler was filled with bottles of iced tea and water.

“Lord, we come to thank you for your son JeJuan,” the Rev. Reynolds Chapman said. “Lift his name up. Send healing to this community. We pray that no violence will come again.”

Then people shared recollections of JeJuan, who was nicknamed Jay-Jay. Friends and classmates, cousins and neighbors passed around a microphone and talked about the kind and friendly 19-year-old who loved cars and helping people.

There were no petitions signed. No summons to call legislators in support of gun control laws. No lectures about causes of violence.

Just a gathering of mourners grieving the assault that had snuffed out a beloved member of the community.

Such vigils -- hundreds of them -- have become a signature practice of the 21-year-old Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.

Each time someone is murdered in Durham, the multifaith coalition reaches out to the family and offers to hold a vigil to lift up the memory of the loved one and to offer prayers for healing.

“To me, the vigil was more spiritual than the funeral,” said Brenda James, whose son Randolph was murdered in 2007. “We all had a chance to say what we wanted to say to Randolph. Each person honored him in their own way.”

Nakecha Snipes Taylor, Jay-Jay’s mother, said the coalition was exactly the type of organization her son -- who helped build homes for Habitat and looked after special-needs children at his high school -- would have liked to belong to.

“It’s not about preaching to you,” she said. “It’s about you being heard.”

Learning from failure

In a typical year, some 30 people are murdered in Durham, a city with a population of 233,000. That’s a rate of 12 homicides per 100,000 people -- more than twice the state average.

The vast majority of these murder victims are young African-American men killed by a firearm.

In 1992, a member of the mostly white congregation at Watts Street Baptist Church told his pastor enough was enough. The religious community ought to mount a response.

The coalition assembled a board of clergy and laypeople and set about developing policies to combat gun violence. They worked with local officials and lawmakers on various gun control measures. Those included limiting the public places where people could carry guns and advocating for a federal assault weapons ban.

The coalition met the fourth Thursday of every month. Its members, including the current executive director, Marcia Owen, a United Methodist layperson and a native of Durham, were nothing if not dedicated.

But as Owen eventually realized, “We were completely unsuccessful.”

At about that time, the N.C. legislature passed a bill pre-empting municipalities from regulating guns. The coalition suddenly found itself without any outlet for policymaking.

Then, at a Thursday meeting five years after the organization was formed, a woman -- whose name no one seems to remember -- asked why the coalition didn’t do vigils for murdered people.

Coalition board members looked at each other with no ready answer.

In all its feverish advocacy, the coalition had never met the people most affected by gun violence. They had assumed they knew the answers and that the solutions were within their grasp.

The question “took us to our knees,” Owen said. “That’s where we found our humility.”

After the first vigil in 1997, the coalition’s methods began to change. Though its mission remained the same -- it seeks an end to the violence that is plaguing Durham neighborhoods -- its approach underwent a radical transformation.

The change came about organically. The success of the vigils and the clear desire of victim families for long-term relationship made it easy, even if board members remained convinced of the need to do more legislatively, on a state and national level.

“We’re still hoping to regulate handguns,” said the Rev. Mel Williams, the co-founder of the coalition and the retired pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church. “But we want to get to know the people and their pain.”

“Working for” versus “being with”

Turning from one way of doing things to another does not come easily to most organizations.

Even in the face of evidence that an approach is not only ineffective but may actually be contributing to division and misunderstanding, a typical response is to work harder.

“It takes a lot of courage to say, ‘We’re making the problem worse rather than better,’” said the Rev. Abby Kocher, a United Methodist pastor in Richmond, Va., who led vigils for the coalition when she served as community minister at Duke University Chapel.

“Many organizations respond by saying, ‘We need more money, more fundraisers, more influential people on the board,’” she said. “They tend to go for a bigger solution rather than looking for riches where other people see only needs.”

 

Questions to consider:

  • Who is your congregation “working for”; what would it take for your congregation to move toward "being with” those people?
  • Where is God calling you to show up, walk alongside people in your community and bear witness?
  • How do we cultivate humility in our ministry with others?
  • Is your ministry open to having its assumptions and solutions challenged?
  • How can your organization allow organic change? What assumptions might be preventing such change?

The religious coalition chose a different path. It meant shifting from “working for” people affected by gun violence to “being with” those same people.

The first step was to host vigils and stand in solidarity with grieving people without stepping in and forcing solutions.

“We realized that before we change a law, we have to stop and mourn,” Owen said. “The first response is that we gather together, affirm God’s bond and be humbled by the life that’s been taken away from us.”

In developing relationships with families, the coalition found that violence creates a cascading set of needs. So it began monthly “circles of healing,” freewheeling discussion groups in which people affected by violence talk about their pain.

The coalition partnered with Duke Divinity School’s catering service to provide meals for grieving families. And it offered to accompany victim family members to meetings with police or district attorneys.

The purpose was not to intercede on behalf of the families but to stand alongside them and, if needed, interpret what was happening to them.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I want that person to be well,’” Owen said. “It’s another thing to listen -- to take the time to discern where God is in it. It’s a different approach. One comes from ego needs. The other is about opening the soul to the love of God.”

Job’s friends

Though coalition leaders didn’t know it, they were moving toward a deeper theological engagement. Clergy sometimes call this type of work a “ministry of presence,” but at its best it is perhaps the most profound gesture of Christian witness.

Being with people is how God chooses to be. It is the way of Jesus, who is called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” After all, Jesus spent 30 years in Nazareth simply being with people before embarking on his public ministry.

And “being with” is how many Christians also look forward to heaven, when they can be with God and with one another.

“Much, perhaps most Christian mission, especially in America, shares with the wider culture an assumption that the central problem of human existence is mortality,” said the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells.

Wells co-wrote a book with Owen, “Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence.” The book came about after he took part in coalition activities while serving as the dean of Duke University Chapel. He is now the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

“But what if this fundamental diagnosis was wrong?” Wells wrote in an email. “What if the fundamental human problem was not mortality but isolation? If so, mission becomes primarily about restoring relationships and only secondarily about supplying resources.”

Owen likens the ministry of “being with” to an often-maligned but nonetheless important group of biblical witnesses.

“If I had to say who we are, I’d say we’re Job’s friends,” she said. “We come and sit in the darkness and bear witness to the pain.”

To Owen, that’s exactly where the church should be.

Deep bonds of trust

When it comes to violence, most people prefer to pass the work on to professionals.

As a result, family members of both victims and offenders are often shuffled off to probation officers, social workers, lawyers, psychiatrists, police officers and others.

Religious coalition members think that’s a big mistake.

Those professionals are trained to “work for” the individual or family. They can’t offer the kind of relationship that comes when people of faith provide what psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

These kinds of relationships perpetuate inequality and keep people strangers to one another.

The coalition’s experience is that when people are treated as equals, they form deep and abiding bonds of trust.

It’s that lesson that led the coalition to add a re-entry ministry that pairs a “faith team” of five to eight people of faith with a person who has been released from prison. The team helps the ex-inmate find a place to live and a job, but they don’t set an agenda.

These programs have added to the coalition’s many champions.

“They came over here when I was down and called to make sure I was all right,” said James, whose son Randolph was killed six years ago. “I would not have come through as well as I have if it wasn’t for them.”

One reason these champions support the coalition is that it doesn’t address every person’s pain in the same way.

Glenda Fowler, for example, didn’t want a vigil for her son, Kareem, who was gunned down at age 33 three years ago.

But on her son’s birthday, she wanted to go to the site of his murder. She hesitated to go by herself, so she called the coalition, and Owen went with her.

“Marcia was there to hold my hand and give me hugs,” Fowler said. “I thank God for people who help you in a time of need.”

The “being with” approach has an impact beyond helping those in the throes of grief, as with the case of Joslin Simms.

Simms’ son Ray was shot and killed in 2005. Afterward, Simms wanted the perpetrator caught, and she wanted the ultimate punishment -- the death penalty.

But over time, as she attended monthly circles of healing and got to know other grieving mothers, she began to think of the parents of the murderers and the pain they, too, might be experiencing.

Ultimately, she concluded, the death penalty was not the solution to her pain.

“It’s not going to bring my child back,” she said. “Taking one’s life is not going to replace what was lost.”

Recently, Simms began volunteering in behalf of other victims of violence. Last year, she was invited to speak to the state’s former governor about the Racial Justice Act, which allowed convicted killers to be spared the death penalty if they could prove racial bias in their cases. (The sitting governor has since repealed the law.)

In July, she attended a private luncheon with Gabrielle Giffords when the former U.S. representative visited Raleigh.

Simms’ transformation may be a sign that the coalition’s change in direction is producing fruit. Coalition members increasingly believe that violence will end only when the people most affected by it -- victims and offenders -- can repair the brokenness themselves.

In the meantime, they sum up their approach this way: Show up; know nothing; expect healing.