After Son's Death, Mother Fights SE Youths' Feud With Forgiveness
Monday, September 19, 2005
The van pulls up into the alley, and Michelle Richardson-Patterson climbs out, unmistakable in her big orange-and-black hat. This is her old neighborhood, Condon Terrace in Southeast Washington, where she grieved over the shooting death of her teenage son last year, where her other children felt so threatened by youths from nearby Barry Farm Dwellings that the family had to move. But Richardson-Patterson keeps coming back, she said, "on assignment from God."
The mother of 10 children, eight of them living, she also has "adopted" the children of Condon Terrace, she said. She gives them rides to Paramount Baptist Church at the bottom of the hill, calls them her "kings and queens" and implores them to stop the exchange of violence with Barry Farm that has gone on so long that no one really remembers how it started.
She hopes to reach them through example. In a time when many relatives of murder victims speak openly of vengeance, of wanting to see the killers suffer for their deeds, she has chosen a less-familiar route: forgiveness.
In June, when Thomas "T.J." Boykin, 19, was sentenced for the slaying of her son James Richardson -- a Ballou Senior High School football star known as J-Rock -- she asked the judge to show mercy to the Barry Farm youth. As the courtroom emptied that day, she and Boykin's mother, Pearl, embraced and prayed. Recently, the two women visited Boykin together at the D.C. jail. With their growing friendship, encouraged by a ministry, they are trying to bring some measure of peace to their communities -- and to their own hearts.
"When I looked at that young man, I saw someone who could have a second chance to rehabilitate himself and come out and be a powerful -- and I mean a powerful -- member of society, but most of all, a powerful servant of God. That's what I saw," Richardson-Patterson said about the jail visit. "I didn't really see somebody, 'Oh, you killed my son; you ought to be dead.'
"And I'm just a firm believer, if God can forgive me all the stuff I've done, then why can't I forgive somebody else?"
Pearl Boykin, who saw her son go to jail to serve a 16-year sentence rather than to his high school graduation, said he was "surprised" by Richardson-Patterson's compassion, expecting anger instead. "I think it took a lot of courage to do what she did, to sit face to face with someone who took your loved one," Pearl Boykin said.
"And I told her when I first met her, I wish we had met each other under a different circumstance."
The Highland Dwellings apartments at Condon Terrace, where Richardson-Patterson's family lived for a dozen years, and Barry Farm, where the Boykins reside, are 2 1/2 miles apart in an area of Southeast Washington not coveted by young home buyers. The two public housing complexes have much in common, both built during World War II and both beset with problems.
According to local legend, the feud between Barry Farm and Condon Terrace started decades ago when one teenager stole another's coat, and the bad feelings simply never went away. Often, the issue was not drugs but self-esteem and territorial pride. At times, a fight between a Barry Farm youth and a Condon Terrace youth seemed to involve little more than "I just don't like him."
The hostilities were often played out in the hallways of Ballou Senior High School, at local dances or on the street, where a muttered insult, a quick shove or a wrong look could flare up into a fistfight or brawl. Most of the time, it ended there, police said. But the Richardson shooting "went to the extreme," said Lt. Jeff Brown of the D.C. police department's 7th District. "That was the ultimate."
At her old home in Condon Terrace, Richardson-Patterson knew of the danger. Sometimes, the fights seemed to come up to her door.