The Streets - July 2009

a column by Paulette Lewis


Standing there in the bright light of my headlights, I searched for any sign of truth. Everything was still. No sign of a shootout. No blood splattered on the ground. No evidence of a crime scene.  No witnesses eager to tell the police everything they knew. How could it possibly be true? It looked so normal I was tempted to ring his doorbell. I had just talked to him a few days earlier and everything was fine. He was fine. My source was wrong and had got me out of bed in the middle of the night for nothing.

But my source wasn’t wrong. When I finally caught up with his brothers, they confirmed it. One of my favorite mentees had in fact been shot and killed that night. “DJ” as he was called in the streets of his hood, was just steps from the safety of his front door when two assailants approached and attempted to rob him. As the situation played out there was an intense fight. A struggle for the loaded gun the young men put to DJ’s head as they demanded money and the gold chain from his neck. Unfortunately, during the scuffle, the gun went off. DJ was shot several times and died almost instantly.

You know those friends you always keep in your heart and mind but only see on certain occasions? That’s how my working relationship was with DJ. When I first met him, to say we didn’t like each other very much would’ve been an understatement. I knew he was trouble and he thought I was trying to be the white savior of the hood. We constantly disagreed—even argued. He was a live wire. I remember to this day telling another one of my kids he was always with to, “stay away from him because he’s going to get you killed.” Those words haunt me now.

As I worked with his brothers and the crew that ran his particular neighborhood, I was with him more than I would’ve preferred. I gave him an attitude and he threw it right back. He would intentionally annoy me to no end—to the point I was ready to beat him with a stick! He drove me crazy and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Looking back, it actually brought us closer together and at the time of his death, I can honestly say, we were close and I loved him like all the other kids I work with in Urban Success.

Apparently, DJ felt he had to present his street hard gangsta image to me even though, as I found out after his death, he was trying to walk the right path and even had dreams of becoming a police officer. He was taking steps to get his life together. That crushed me even more.

I have come to accept that I am not the savior of the hood and that as much as I want to see each one of my kids make it out alive, ultimately, despite my best efforts and theirs, I bury a few each year. Losing DJ was especially hard on me because of how our relationship evolved. I felt guilty. I questioned every stupid fight we had and all the times I had been hard on him. I asked myself if I had given him enough understanding and patience and love towards the end when I had finally accepted him. Did he know I loved him? I hope so.

Something else that bothered me was his salvation. I had never even invited him to church like I did my other kids. What kind of “Christian based” mentor was I? I made sure he had food, clothes, a safe ride home when he needed it, but I don’t remember having one conversation with him about his relationship with God. Wow. . .reality hit me really hard. That should be my main concern with all of my kids shouldn’t it?

My internal struggles with what I did and didn’t do, what I said and should’ve said to him went on for some time. It bothered me that he had died so violently and suddenly, as many of my other kids do, but the difference was that I didn’t have the reassurance I needed to know for sure where he would spend his eternity.

My heart ached. My energy was drained. I felt like I failed him. I should’ve known him better. I considered shutting down Urban Success for good and just walking away. After all, what is the point? Many of the kids I work with get killed over the years or end up doing some time in prison. How many of my kids actually made it didn’t feel like enough for the work I was doing and the emotion and energy and time I was putting into their lives. They would make it without me anyway. The devil has a way of deceiving us.

As I had just two months earlier, I prepared to go to the same funeral home for my last goodbye to DJ. In the hood, young people often expect to die by the age of 21, however they do not make plans for it, so many times, the expense of their funeral and caring for any children or family is left up to their crew. It took us a few weeks to raise the money to bury him. I was honored to drive his brothers to the funeral because it really hadn’t sunk in yet. It started to become real when I saw his entire crew silently file into the funeral home with his photo on their RIP shirts and headbands and line the far wall of the room after paying their respects. No hood funeral is complete without a slideshow of photos while playing “See You at the Crossroads” by Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony.

As I sat down with his brothers, feeling a bit uncomfortable being the only white person there as usual, a tall woman with a handful of tissues and a tear stained face came over to me. It was DJ’s foster mother. As is the case with many of the kids I work with in the streets, I had never met his family other than his brothers. I melted as she reached for me and said, “You must be the mentor.” Wow. . .the mentor. DJ told her about me? He talked about me to people? It came across like he claimed me as his mentor and was proud of it.

I had no idea. I was so touched by that, the tears began to flow. She joined us for the service which was yet another gentle lecture about how the violence among our youth and in our communities must stop. We cannot continue to accept our young people dying out like this. They must learn a better way. The pastor went on to say that he is completely confident in DJ’s salvation. He recited a story about what DJ said about his own mortality on the very day he died.

Someone had jokingly told DJ to go home for the night and he said, “This isn’t my home. Heaven is my home.” That sealed it for me. I had a sense of peace. For some reason, 2007 was a year full of tragic, violent loss among the people I knew. To keep friends close after they pass on, I keep their number in my phone. I guess its my little way of holding on..

For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.