Healing from gun violence interrupted by just that

Janice Johnson standing in front of the Peace Play table at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester, MA on December 11, 2018. Photo by Rachel Rock/BU News Service

By Rachel Rock
BU News Service

BOSTON – At the Great Hall in Codman Square in December, a young black man came forward as the first to speak at a District 4 public safety community forum.

“I don’t know how to trust because that’s what I’ve been taught,” he said. “And I don’t get enough opportunities to smile or to simply enjoy my life.”

This bleak reality of life for a young black man in an impoverished neighborhood in Boston set the tone for the evening. Boston City Council President and District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell, in partnership with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, had invited her constituents and other stakeholders to come together on this cold winter night to share perspectives and ideas of how to calm the violence in their community. The cavernous hall was filled with a multigenerational and multiracial group of residents, young people from Teen Empowerment, health care providers, and Boston police officers.

An hour into the meeting, the sound of sirens filled the air. Within 10 minutes, the sirens were replaced with the familiar flashing lights of a police vehicle and EMTs parked just outside the Hall on Talbot Ave. Police officers who had been participating in the forum began to exit the Hall. Eventually, one returned and beckoned the District 4 Councilor over to brief her on the situation.

“I’ve just learned that there has been a shooting right outside this building,” Campbell told the forum participants. “We’ve lost yet another young man to gun violence.”

According to the online website Universal Hub, which publishes a list of every Boston homicide victim, the young man who was killed that night was Nervan Joshua Luc, 19. He was Boston’s 52nd homicide victim in 2018, and the 17th since Sept. 1, 2018.

No one better understands the deep and lasting impacts of each and every homicide than the cohosts of that evening event, the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. The Institute was founded in 1994 by Tina Chéry after her son Louis was killed in a cross-fire shootout in his Dorchester neighborhood. Chéry could not find any resources to provide specific guidance and support for her traumatic loss of her 15-year-old son.

Tina Chéry, founder of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, speaking at the District 4 Community Safety Forum about the Seven Principles of Peace that guide the Institute’s work with families and communities impacted by murder. The forum was held in the Great Hall in Codman Square, Boston on November 30, 2018. Photo by Rachel Rock/BU News Service

Over the past 20 years, the Institute has developed a set of tools, a curriculum and a network for the surviving family members of homicide. Many of the staff members have themselves lost a family member, including Janice Johnson, the Institute’s Family Support Coordinator. Johnson first met Chéry in 2006 in the days after her younger brother, Eric, 39, was murdered. In an interview, Johnson described how at that time, the Peace Institute was a significantly smaller organization. Its power to heal, however, was apparent to Johnson from the moment she first walked in.

When she first met with Chéry, Johnson was angry and focused only on seeking justice in wanting her brother’s murderer caught. She had no room in her heart for peace until Chéry told her that peace is what they worked with at the Institute. Johnson learned of the Seven Principles of Peace — love, unity, faith, hope, courage, justice and forgiveness — and the extent to which they infuse and direct all of the Institute’s practices.

Chéry asked Johnson if she would consider writing a story about her brother, a moment in which Johnson experienced firsthand the power of this place.   

“I felt so good being asked. I felt important and that’s what the Peace Institute is,” Johnson said as the recollection of the moment brought tears to her eyes. “They give us opportunities to turn our pain into power. Taking action in your loved ones name is healing.”

12 years later, Johnson has become credentialed in advocacy and certified in Holistic Healing and Integrated Health. A regular part of her work is known as “Peace Play.” This healing activity unfolds in a small room at the heart of the Institute where empty containers of soft sand stand at the ready. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling by shallow shelving filled with a wide range of trinkets and toys and objects. Families are asked to pick a few objects that in some way reflect the relative they have lost to homicide and to then place them into the sand.

Janice Johnson standing in front of the Peace Play table at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester, MA on December 11, 2018. Photo by Rachel Rock/BU News Service

Johnson talked about the transformative power of Peace Play as a family slowly begins to open up and talk about the person they lost, sometimes for the first time since the murder.

“Families lose their power after a murder. They will move in silence for years sometimes,” Johnson said. “Peace Play is about regaining their voice and beginning to heal.”

What began that cold December night with the pull of a trigger created long and lasting sadness and a difficult road to an uncertain recovery. Many of the individuals gathered together in the Great Hall that night had direct experience with the violence swirling in their community. It is why they had come out. It’s also why the shooting just outside the Hall was a momentary distraction that in other communities — some only a few miles away — likely would have prompted law enforcement to issue a shelter-in-place order. This night, in Codman Square, attendees were simply asked to use an alternative exit on the other side of the building.

But, rather than allow the shooting to derail the work of the community forum, Councilor Campbell understood the tragic irony.

“Life goes on and reminds us of how important this work is,” Campbell told the participants. “I’m staying and will continue the conversation with all of you for as long as you are willing to stay.”

Correction: Due to an editing error an earlier version of this story referred to Codman Square as the most impoverished neighborhood in Boston. The poverty rate for the area is below that of other neighborhoods in the city.

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