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 21/2 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.
"Late at night, we would always hear shooting, bullets shooting -- this was, like, every night -- and the kids would say the next day, 'Man, Barry Farms came up here last night,' " she said. "So I was always calling to make sure everybody was okay in the neighborhood, and I would tell them, 'Whatever you do, don't retaliate, because it's not worth it, it's not worth it.' "
A Mother's Forgiveness
On the night of Feb. 2, 2004, the day her son was shot to death outside the Ballou cafeteria, Michelle Richardson-Patterson knelt to pray in her bedroom at Condon Terrace. "I said, 'Lord, whoever killed my son, I forgive them right now in the name of Jesus.' I said, 'Lord, this is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.' I didn't know who I was forgiving, but I was forgiving."
At an earlier time, she said, she would not have been capable of that response. Growing up in Southeast, she had a difficult childhood. "I used to go to church with my grandmother," she said, "and then I got grown and sowed my royal oats." At 15, she was pregnant with her first child, she said: "From then on, they were just popping out like popcorn."
Ten years ago, she made a dramatic change in her life after a group from Paramount Baptist Church visited. "They challenged me to come to church, and I love a challenge," she said. "I came down on a Saturday. I had my days mixed up -- that tells you how confused I was. But it was a good thing, because they were giving away food and clothes that day. And so at that particular time, they adopted my family."
A tall woman with a cheerful manner, Richardson-Patterson, 40, is known for her variety of big, colorful hats that she calls her "earthly crowns." She talks exuberantly about her "community missionary work," using such words as "wow" and "awesome." When she speaks of J-Rock, she said, "it gives me a smile just to say his name."
He was her fourth child and was always a strong athlete. One day when he was 4, she likes to recall, she came upon him holding up the family's heavy TV set and looking worried about what to do next. As a child, he liked school, she said, but when he reached Ballou, "things started happening." He was a star running back on a winning team, but he struggled in class; school officials would say after his death that, at 17, he was a third-year freshman. Officials also later said they had been trying to get him transferred to another school because he fanned hostilities between the rival groups.
His mother realized how serious the problems had become after the Turkey Bowl championship game in November 2003, when police formed a human barricade to escort J-Rock from the playing field. "They said they heard someone say they were going to kill him," she said. Left to drive her family home, she said she was chased for a while by two youths in a car. "I've never driven that fast in my life."
Because of safety concerns, J-Rock did not return to Ballou until late January 2004. He had been back only a couple of days when Richardson-Patterson received a telephone call at her job at a D.C. parking company; J-Rock had been shot in the arm, leg and chest. "Something went through me," she said, "and I knew he was already gone." He died at Washington Hospital Center about an hour after he was shot.
The feuding, of course, was not over.
A few weeks after the shooting, at a court hearing for Boykin, youths from Barry Farm and Condon Terrace exchanged words, and Richardson-Patterson said a Barry Farm youth threatened to harm one of her daughters. In a parking lot near the courthouse, Richardson-Patterson said, her knee was injured when the two groups started pushing and shoving one another; she declined to press charges. She and her husband, William Patterson, had already decided to leave Condon Terrace for suburban Maryland.
"I said, you know, enough is enough. . . . I felt like I was running, but I've got eight more children to worry about."
Yet she returned -- to her church and to the young residents "up on the hill."
The boys and girls spill out of the apartments at Condon Terrace and race toward the woman in the hat. "Miss Michelle! Hey, Miss Michelle!" With the children clamoring around her as she hugs and pats them, Richardson-Patterson resembles the nursery-rhyme character she often likens herself to: the woman in the shoe who had so many children she didn't know what to do.
Almost every day, she ferries them to something: Sunday worship service, vacation Bible school, step team practice, Spiritual Boot Camp. Some of the older youths seem to duck her pleas to attend church, but the younger ones are happy at the attention.
"Miss Michelle, Stephanie fell and busted her toe open," one small girl reported.
"Oh, come here, Stephanie," Richardson-Patterson said. "Is that why you're looking so sad?"
With a call to Destiny to take a seat and to Rondell to fasten his seat belt, she drives the short distance to the church. There, in a class of 9-year-olds, she mixes stories about early Christians with advice on present-day life in a troubled neighborhood.
"Let me hear you say, 'It's 911, it's an emergency,' " she said. "And let me tell you why it's an emergency. Because too many of our young people, they are dying, they're getting hurt . . . they're being abused as children and they're scared to speak out. And if, by chance, you as a missionary doctor of Christ are able to tell them about Jesus, they will probably come forth and speak about some of that mess they're in."
She tells them about "the ABCs of salvation." She prays with them that "no violence will take place in our neighborhoods tonight."
Later, she drives them home.
"Bye, Miss Michelle!" "Good night, Miss Michelle!" the children call out.
"Good night, sweetheart, I love you. See you tomorrow."
More than most parents, Pearl Boykin could understand what Richardson-Patterson was going through. She, too, lost a son, at 16, to a shooting in 1989. Boykin, who has five other children, has experienced a mother's sorrow from both sides of the homicide equation -- a son in prison, a son in the grave.
Together, the two women talk about their sons and about how much the mothers have in common. They say they feel like old friends. Although the fathers were involved in the boys' lives, they bore the brunt of raising them.
Both try to reason with the young people at Barry Farm and Condon Terrace. Although police say things have been relatively quiet since Richardson's death, the two mothers know that their message is still urgent.
"But they don't want to hear it, some of them," Boykin said of the youths. "Well, they say they're willing to stop the feuding. But as soon as we talk to them, something else happens."
She produces a photograph of Thomas Boykin, his senior picture, a smiling young man in a blue graduation gown. "You can tell -- my son, he's not one of those boys who walks around with his pants hanging off him."
Boykin, who is in her early fifties, sits at the kitchen table in her Barry Farm apartment, smoothing the pink tablecloth with her hands, the toddlers she cares for playing nearby. She jokes that she has aged a great deal recently -- "My daughter told me I need a makeover" -- but things seem easier now that the trial is over. Active in her Pentecostal church, she, like Richardson-Patterson, has been getting involved in community youth groups.
She said her son "went through a lot" beginning in September 2003. "The young men would hit him," she said. "He told me J-Rock would walk between him and his girlfriend. And he'd say, 'Ma, I'm going to try to ignore him,' and I'd say, 'Honey, you just ignore him. You don't have long for school.' I wanted to transfer him, but no, he didn't want to be transferred."
She complained to school officials, she said, who told her not to worry, they were "on top of" the Barry Farm-Condon Terrace conflict. "Two weeks later, this happens," she said.
In court, police investigators testified that a fight broke out after Richardson called Thomas Boykin "pretty." Boykin took the stand to say he feared for his life and wrongly believed that Richardson was armed.
"I am so sorry, and my son is so sorry. If he could take it back, he would," Pearl Boykin said. "But you can't take it back. What's done is done. All we can do is pray and hope this don't come to no other kids."
She and Richardson-Patterson did not formally meet until May at a dinner for survivors of violent crime. With the help of Inner Thoughts Inc., a group that reaches out to troubled D.C. youths, they are forming an organization with other mothers.
"The community needs an example of how to forgive and how to reconcile and how to heal," said the Rev. Anthony Motley of Inner Thoughts. "Too often, we're torn apart because people refuse to speak to people, people carrying grudges for years . . . . So these mothers have shown through their actions and their words that it can be done."