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:
"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."
Three years ago, the Rev. Stephen E. Young Sr. asked members of Holy Christian to surrender their illegal firearms at the altar. Saundra Beverly's son, Anthony Wilson Sr., 31, who weeks later would be shot more than 20 times, took up the challenge.
"I said, 'I want everybody to turn their guns in.' They were still struggling with their pasts -- see, everybody here is still struggling with something -- and Anthony was the first one to convince everybody to do it," Young said. "He came in with an AK-47. He had it down in his sweat pants and he had walked it all the way from Kenilworth. He said, 'Pastor, I've got my gun and I'm turning it in because I don't want it no more.' "
Young, who has been assisting at a church in Capitol Heights, started Holy Christian 12 years ago, hoping to reach people forgotten by "the starched, plush churches," he said. Although many of the thousand members are professionals, he said, "I cater to the underdog. The majority of our church is fresh out of jail. They're fresh out of crack houses, they're out of prostitution, they're retired dope dealers, ex-killers and convicts. That's who I have."
He estimates that 70 percent of his congregation is a younger crowd, and he believes the appeal is the emotion in the services. Young leads the church in singing such rousing hymns as "O How I Love Jesus" as the band builds in volume and the worshipers stand and wave their arms and shout "Hallelujah!" He scolds them about being on drugs or welfare, and pleads with them to accept Jesus before they, too, meet a violent death. Several members applaud Young for "keeping it real." That the pastor himself has experienced the killings of relatives seems to strengthen the connection.
In 1977, Young's brother, Melvin, was shot to death in the District as he drove his ice-cream truck. Two of Young's five children also have died: Marc, 19, was gunned down at a Pizza Hut in Southeast in 1991, in what Young said was a case of mistaken identity; and Marcio, 28, who was called "Ola," died in a car crash in Southeast in 2000, after another driver ran a red light, Young said.
"My wife was right back where she started" after the second son's death, he said. "What I've found out about death is -- and I tell people -- you never get over it. Nothing ever replaces the love you lost."
Death has come right up to the church door. When Holy Christian was at its previous location, around the corner on 50th Street NE, Gary Washington was shot and killed as he left a Men's Day service. "They were shooting him in the stomach, and the blood started running out of him like a fountain," Young said. "It scared me so bad I couldn't go to him."
Young said he has conducted about 30 "homicide funerals" this year. To keep youth off the streets, he has organized five choirs, a dance squad, "a holy band." He hopes to open a youth center on church property across the street, though money is a roadblock. Last year, he asked Saundra Beverly to start a homicide support group -- so many families had been affected by death.
"When you're hurting, you hurt other people," he said. "They all needed a shoulder to cry on."
'Save Your Soul, Son'
Like the other members of Life After Homicide, Beverly is tormented by what happened to her child. He was shot to death as he rode his bicycle in Northeast in August 2002, not long after turning in his gun. No one has been arrested.
"He was a loving person," Beverly said, "but peer pressure was on his back and he got in with the crowd and when he wanted to come out, there was no out -- the only out was death. And he said, 'They're going to kill me, Ma,' and I said, 'Well, save your soul, son, please save your soul.' "
Beverly, 55, a good-natured women who works as a school-bus driver, is candid about her past. The mother of nine sold drugs for many years, she said. Anthony was the only one of her children who was born when she was using drugs, she said, and that knowledge has brought her a lot of guilt. "When he grew up, he was one of the wild ones."
She marvels that he is also the child who brought her to this church, during his last months, when he desperately was trying to right his life.
"I was an undercover Christian," she said at a recent meeting. "We pray to God when nobody's listening to us, nobody hears. We don't want anybody to think we're soft. I was a hustler. I couldn't put no soft image up. I had to be strapped with a gun. I had to have a dirty mouth. I had to be aggressive. I had to be loud. I had to be seen. I was an undercover Christian, but I wasn't going to tell anybody."
When Young asked her to head the homicide group, she admitted that her first reaction was "to duck." But her attitude soon changed.
"I will break my neck to get down to this church because it means something to me," she said. "I used to say I didn't need nobody, but I was wrong."
Circle of Solace
Prayer begins the Wednesday night meetings and Linda Paige's voice soars over the sounds of a siren outside and a choir practicing elsewhere in the building. The members of Life After Homicide stand in a circle, holding hands, heads bowed.
"Father Lord, turn this community around right now in the name of Jesus, Father, and we want You to shake up and wake up the politicians in this town, oh God, the leadership, the church ministries in this town, Father, put us on one accord, every heart, every mind, focused on our youth."
Sometimes a handful of people attend the meetings, sometimes a roomful, with children spilling out of the chairs. The adults are almost always female, and the discussion often touches on how men close up when they grieve. There is an informal air -- someone eats a takeout meal while someone else rummages around for supplies to make Peace Walk posters. But sooner or later, the group settles down and members discuss everything from the need for a city curfew to worries about their surviving children.
"They can build a big stadium for somebody who's not interested in the issues and don't even live here, and these kids don't even have a safe haven to go to. I've got a problem with that because I've got an 18-year-old girl who wants to be out in the streets. . . ."
"Every time I look at that TV, I see the same detective, the one in my son's case, and every time somebody gets killed, it's like my son's case is being pushed back further than what it was. . . ."
"I keep finding these baby pictures of my son that I thought I had lost. . . ."
Everyone listens closely, responding with murmurs of encouragement and an occasional, "Lord have mercy," or "Tell it, sister." If the talk strays too far afield, Barbara Cooper -- whom Beverly calls her sergeant-at-arms -- steers them back. "Let's get back to heavy hearts," Cooper said when the discussion focused too long on the failures of the District's school system. "We're over here trying to take care of the whole city and we can't do that."
Group members fret sometimes about what they could have done differently, how they might have prevented the deaths, short of picking up and moving out of town. But death has become such a fact of life here that those left behind often seem unable or disinclined to push such questions. In some cases, there were so many death threats before the homicide that the ending seemed inevitable.
"I really couldn't get mad when I saw what they did to him," Beverly said about her son, "because I thought, 'They won't be able to kill him again.' "
Comforted by Mementos
Tawanda Tatum, 40, has a heavy heart, and her pain is in plain view -- raw and constant. Wearing her sweat shirts and baseball caps and denim outfits adorned with her dead son's photographs, she feels closer to him, she said.
"I know my son lives on," she said at a recent meeting. "I had about 1,000 people at my son's funeral, and so many girls got his name tattooed on them. I can't go out in the street without seeing somebody with a shirt or something with his name on it. Then they see me and it's like, 'That's Kenny's mother right there.' It makes me feel good, because he's still alive. He's not here, but he's still alive."
Kenny Grimsley, or Ken Roc, as the neighborhood kids called him, was shot to death in his car Jan. 13 near Spingarn High School, where he was a senior. In the fog-filled months that followed, Tatum heard about Life After Homicide, and she and her identical twin, Lawanda Tatum-Pelote, became devoted members. They are worried about Lawanda's son, Rex, 19, who receives regular death threats and who was as close to Kenny as a brother. But Tawanda's mind and heart are full of her missing son.
"I worked two jobs -- any shoes that came out, my son had. Any clothes he wanted, he had," said Tatum, a special police officer with the U.S. Department of Labor. "I made sure my son had everything he had so he would not have to go out in that street to sell drugs or anything. He was always well-dressed and well-liked. And they wasn't nothing but jealous boys that killed him."
The sisters grew up in Langston Terrace on 21st Street NE, and still have a lot of family there. For generations, the group "21st Street Boys" and the nearby "Trinidad Boys" have been "feuding," Tatum-Pelote said. Kenny was tormented at school by the rival group for five years, his mother said. She met more than once with parents from the other side.
"They even had the [D.C. police] gang task force in on it," she said. "They knew my son. They knew all the Trinidad Boys. They knew all the 21st Street Boys. They knew everything and what was going to happen, and the first thing they would say is, 'Miss Tatum, you come get your son out of school because these boys are coming up here to fight him.' They were trying to protect the other kids, but what about my child?"
Tatum clings to the mementos of her son. She listens several times a day to the only recording she has of Kenny's voice, an angry phone message to his girlfriend. She rereads the essay he wrote in seventh grade that made her so proud -- it was included in a student essay collection sponsored by the National Campaign to Stop Violence.
With a child's erratic grammar, he wrote movingly about his grandfather's drug addiction and the struggle of other family members to get control of their lives. Then he summed up his own life.
"I try to stay in school play basketball and football for different clubs," he wrote. "I enjoy my sisters looking up to me and being around them all the time. I could go to my mother and talk to her about my problems or girls. I see some of my friends locked up or on drugs or alcohol hanging on the corner. I see some of them being shoot at or have been shoot. I thank God for my mother because she made me what I'm is today. . . . For myself I just try to be the best I could be."
Tatum cries at the meetings, but sometimes she laughs a little, too, when she talks of all the photographs of him she has in her house, like Kenny wallpaper. "I came home the other day and those girls of mine had put an 8-by-10 of him up in the bathroom," she told the others in the group.
They all understood. "We love our babies," Beverly said gently.
Revisited by Grief
At one recent meeting, Cornelia Robertson had little to say. But the group soon would be haunted by her comments that night.
"I want to ask a question. When are we going to have a grief counselor come talk to us again?" she asked. "Because I've been going through these changes, and it's been four years since my son died. I thought I would be over it, but I'm not over it, I still have my ups and downs and I found it was getting heavier and heavier on my heart. My son's godmother called me the other day and said she didn't even know why she had called, but [that] I could call her and talk about him anytime."
"You can talk about him anytime with me, too," someone in the group said.
Robertson was referring to her elder son, who died at 19 in a double shooting in Southeast in July 2000. A week after she spoke up that night, she was mourning the death of her other son, Shawn J. Riley, 15, whose body was found Oct. 11 in the back seat of a stolen car in a Southeast alley. As familiar as they were with violent death, the news stunned the members of Life After Homicide. When they met again a day after the news broke, they were struggling with concerns for Robertson and their own terrible memories.
"I was driving a school bus when she called me on the phone and she said, 'I lost my baby,' " Beverly related to the other members that night. "I was shocked. I didn't even know who it was at first. . . . I pulled to the side of the road and just let her talk."
The group had asked that grief counselors from the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Northwest attend the meeting to help members figure out how best to help Robertson. They talked about the thoughtless remarks people had said to them when they were newly grieving, such things as, "I understand how you feel." They talked about how hard it had been to explain to people what caused the death, and the need they had to say their loved one's name over and over.
"All I know is, she's in a loss right now," Tawanda Tatum said, "and there's nothing you can say or do to console her at this time. All you can do is give her her space and when she is ready, she will come to you in her own way and she will speak to you in her own way about her child."
They talked about small gestures they could make to assist Robertson -- making lunches for her young daughter, fielding phone calls, creating a memory book for Shawn. They talked about what they did to combat sadness. One woman said she sings; another said she hugs her children.
When Cornelia Robertson walked in late into the meeting, after working on funeral arrangements elsewhere in the church, the members surrounded her with hugs and kind words. She stood in their midst, her head bowed, nodding her thanks.
As the Life After Homicide meeting drew to a close, the grief counselor asked each member to name something they were thankful for.
"I'm thankful for my children. . . ."
"I'm thankful that my son is still living. . . ."
"I'm grateful for my family. . . ."
Finally, it was Cornelia Robertson's turn to speak. "I'm thankful for my friends in this group," she said.
Kenya Rawlings, 5, touches the headstone at the grave of her father, Kenneth N. Grimsley Jr., an 18-year-old who was killed in January. Her name is printed below his so she can be buried with him when she dies. Tawanda Tatum wears a necklace with photos of her son, Kenneth Grimsley Jr. "He's not here, but he's still alive," Tatum says. Tawanda Tatum, 40, weeps as she speaks of her son, Kenneth Grimsley Jr., who was killed in January. She holds some of the cards that were in his pocket when he died.