Every Wednesday night, the Life After Homicide group meets at Holy Christian Missionary Baptist Church for All People, a converted supermarket that has become a seasoned witness to the violence taking a record number of the District's youth.
To get to their meeting room, the members must pass the bulletin board in the front lobby. The board is plastered with photographs and funeral programs of young people they all knew well -- Saundra's son, Crystal's brother, Dale's boy. As they drift in and settle into folding chairs, the members get ready to address the question posed each week by director Saundra Beverly:
Tawanda Tatum, left, Saundra Beverly, Brenda Page and Linda Paige pray before a Life After Homicide meeting at Holy Christian Missionary Baptist Church for All People in Northeast.
(Carol Guzy The Washington Post)
"Is anybody hurting tonight?"
Someone always is.
Twenty-three people younger than 18 have been killed in the District this year, compared with 12 last year, and the surge has shaken parents, alarmed police and other officials, and brought more grief and heartache to the church's door.
Holy Christian is on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, in an area where loiterers fill the streets and the sounds of gunfire are common. Its leaders have tried to reach out to the disadvantaged and troubled. But lately, the church has seemed immersed in death: Nearly everyone who attends it has had a cousin, a brother, a son who died violently before reaching middle age.
Almost every week, another young person is "funeralized" at the church, as members put it, including many of the most high-profile victims of the past year: Chelsea Cromartie, 8, who was struck by a stray bullet as she played indoors; Princess Hansen, 14, who was killed in an apparent effort to silence her about another shooting. Even the prayers said aloud reflect the dangers outside, giving thanks for the safety of surviving family members or asking God to hear "the mothers' cries for justice for their children's blood."
For many, the year-old Life After Homicide group has become a ballast, providing meetings where they can rail about the police detectives who do not return their calls, and can plan the events -- its Peace Walk in September, a "town meeting" on violence to be held Nov. 20 -- that give them purpose and hope. But perhaps the greatest comfort comes from being around others who know what it is like to pick out a coffin for a son who is not quite grown, or to drive to a graveyard to talk to a child.
It is a support group for people who have been steeped in grief, who have weathered multiple tragedies in a community that continues to be defined by its troubles. With this fellowship comes a special understanding.
"Is anybody hurting tonight?"
Barbara Cooper, 59, has lost two sons to homicide, one in 1991, another last year, and the pain is reflected in her tired eyes and continuing heart problems. She still does not understand, she said, why police let her son Calvin Cooper, 39, lie so long in the alley where he fell, when he had identification on him and she was only six doors away. "The police had plenty of time to come and get someone in the family, so we could have been with him," she said.
Tawanda Tatum's only son, Kenneth N. Grimsley Jr., 18, was shot to death in January. She can barely speak of him without crying. She has a wardrobe of T-shirts and blue jeans decorated with his photographs -- a handsome young man giving the hand signs of the neighborhood 21st Street Boys . "My son really wasn't a fighter," she said. "My son was a player and a lover -- that's what he was like."
For such people, the goal is to learn how to live again, to stave off the doubts and questions and what-ifs that haunt them. Time helps a little, and so does talking about their feelings, but they always are steeled for another death. When it came to their group again, as it did recently, no one was really surprised. But at funeral after funeral, the members of Life After Homicide keep looking for reasons to hope.
"What we're waiting for are some answers from police and everybody, and by them giving us answers, maybe they can save somebody else's child," Beverly said. "That's what we're trying to do -- we're Life After Homicide, but we're trying to make it Life Before Homicide. We're trying to save some of the mothers from going through what we're going through right now."