Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ministry of Presence

In Oakland there is a group made up of volunteers and social workers, led by a woman whose son was murdered here ten years ago, who step into the immediate aftermath of each homicide, usually at the homes of survivors, but sometimes at fresh crime scenes, in order to give aid and comfort to the survivors.

"Aid and comfort" they define with a blessed looseness. Sometimes it is merely a gentle, clear-eyed presence. I have heard them refer to this work as their Ministry of Presence.

More often it means help planning funerals, help navigating the unfamiliar world of investigators and coroners, help doing dishes, grocery shopping, arranging rides or childcare, cleaning crime scenes, asking, simply, "Have you eaten?" Or, "Have you taken your meds?"

The leader of the group is an African American woman in her mid-fifties named Marilyn Harris Marilyn gained a small amount of notoriety here ten years ago, after her son, Khadafy Washington, was shot dead in the summer after he'd graduated high school. In the ensuing weeks, Marilyn arranged for the erection of billboards all over West Oakland, the neighborhood in which Khadafy was killed, and one of the most historically fascinating and relentlessly violent urban places in America.

I remember the stunning effect of coming upon one of the billboards, which featured a large photograph of Khadafy and the words, "Do You Know Who Killed Me?" We still don't, but in the years since, with their Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence, Marilyn and her husband, James Harris, and a group of dedicated volunteers, and recently with funding through Measure Y and Catholic Charities, have dedicated their lives to guiding others through the toxic shock and blinding fog of just such a loss.

The Khadafy Foundation's offices are in the Acorn. The Crisis Response and Support Network is based at Catholic Charities of the East Bay.

I think of Marylin and the other members of the team like I might think of firefighters, in that every day they find the courage to run toward those things the rest of us would run away from. To spend time with anyone on the team, but particularly with Marilyn, is to have whatever shell of cynicism you might like to hide behind involuntarily torn away.

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