Growing up, I heard gunshots all the time.
As a child raised in a rural setting, it was common for me to hear gunshots, often targeting clay pigeons or deer, resounding in the distance:
It was normal, and in certain seasons, may even be exciting, as it could mean venison would be on the table for dinner.
We had a gun cabinet in our home. On a few occasions, as I grew older, I even picked up a gun and took out a few clay pigeons or cans myself.
Gunshots did not faze me.
I remember the first time I saw someone fire a gun at a person, rather than a target or animal.
I was working for a non-profit ministry that served the communities of Wilmington, DE, and I was living on the East Side, a lower-income neighborhood dense with row homes and small stoops. I remember hearing the shots just outside on the street:
I had never seen violence like this outside of TV, and in my naivety I found it to be a novelty; I peeked through the window of the front door, in awe as I watched the man ducking behind a neighbor’s car, reaching his arm up to return fire.
“Man, just wait until I can tell someone what I’m seeing!”
Perhaps it was the lack of a dropped body that helped me accept my amusement; perhaps witnessing the whole event made me feel I had earned credibility, that I had “arrived” in the urban context.
Even just outside my door, gunshots did not faze me.
I remember the first time I heard a gunshot that left a person dead.
I had been living in the east end of Richmond for nearly a year, and in my new home in the Fairmount neighborhood for nearly 3 months. It was around 10:30pm on January 4th, 2009, and my housemate and I were between episodes of “The Wire”. Maybe it was the aforementioned novelty, or desensitization from hearing so many shots in the last episode, but when we heard the single shot coming from down the block, I have a memory of softly laughing and likely saying something like, “Welcome to Church Hill.”
A day later, I found on a local news blog that the single shot had taken the life of David Earl Boyd, Jr., only a block and a half from where we were starting another episode of the show.
I didn’t know David, but he only lived 3 blocks away. There is a good chance I had said “hi” to him on the sidewalk at some point. And yet, I had so casually dismissed the gunshot that took his life.
I later posted on the blog:
I heard the shot, as I live just a block away, and was struck by the fact that I was unfazed. I thought, “There are always gunshots,” or “Maybe it was something else.” But I began to think over the next day or so about the possibility it wasn’t just another gunshot. I read this, and I’m hit with my responsibility as a member of this community; I am convicted to explore my role as a neighbor.
That Saturday, services were held for David in the funeral home across the street; a building whose rooms have held the bodies of many struck down by bullets.
That week, gunshots began to faze me.
“pow pow…pow pow pow pow…”
My cat and I leap out of the bed and pull open the curtains to see if there is anyone running. My wife tends to sleep through them, but those early morning shots often shake the cat and I awake. I don’t know what the cat is thinking, but her growl is angry and determined.
I’ve never seen anyone running, but I always make the call.
“911, what is the location of your emergency?”
“Hi, yeah, I just heard about 6 gunshots, coming from around upper Mosby.”
It’s hard to tell where the shots are coming from. The sound bounces off the building next to us, and everything from the caliber of the gun to the height and thickness of the clouds can make the shots sound closer or farther than they really are. Still, on my end of Church Hill, most of the audible shots seem to come from upper Mosby, one of four housing projects in our community, so I use that as a starting point and go from there.
Sometimes I hear sirens in response, sometimes I don’t. At first, I was bothered when I didn’t see flashing lights tearing down Fairmount Avenue within 5 minutes; over time, I realized there are so many gunshots, and so rarely a lingering presence, that officers have little more to do than drive around the area.
But after that single shot in January, if I can give an accurate enough location, I call it in.
And while I’m not personally fearful of my safety, gunshots faze me, even when asleep.
1994 was Church Hill’s — and Richmond’s — most violent year.
The year David Boyd, Jr., was shot, there were 9 homicides in the east end of Richmond. In 1994, there were 34. There were 6 murders alone in the month of April, two of which occurred in the middle of the street where we live now. On that night, hundreds of neighbors crowded around the scene for nearly 4 hours, trying to make sense of the violence.
For a while, the numbers seemed to be going down. Beginning with 2008, when I moved to Church Hill, the count was 11, 9, 14, 13, 9, 10, 4.
In 2015, there were 13 homicides. 2016, 14. 2017, 15, and the year is not yet through.
More than the number of recorded homicides, something else concerns long-time neighbors: there have been vastly more gunshots.
March is when many of us knew something was up. On 3/30, two teenagers, Taliek and Mikkaisha, were shot to death in upper Mosby Court. Hundreds of neighbors gathered that week to mourn and pray in the small courtyard where it happened.
At the same time, dozens of teens gathered into small factions, either to retaliate on behalf of their fallen friends, or to represent and defend their neighborhood. A police officer that walks a beat in our area told my wife to keep the kids away from a nearby park, as they had dealt with, and anticipated more, retaliation.
On May 26th, a Virginia State Trooper was shot in Upper Mosby Court; he later died. Through the summer, police presence was heavy around the housing projects; when shots were fired, not even a minute would pass before sirens were flying down the street.
And despite their presence, many shots were still fired. While fewer people were killed in the neighborhood over the summer, a number of people found themselves in the hospital with gunshot wounds. There were more evenings where the cat and I awoke and grabbed the phone. More moments when my son asked, “were those fireworks?”
The impact of gunshots on my neighbors fazes me deeply.
My son no longer assumes the loud pops are fireworks.
There’s a running joke in neighborhoods like Church Hill: the hotter it gets, the crazier people get. The assumption is, everyone is out, people are frustrated by the heat — or bored while school is out — and so they get into more trouble. When September hits, folks usually breathe a sigh of relief, and hope to ride out the cool towards a lower body count.
This fall was different.
10/6: “Police said they received a call about 12:30p.m. for a shooting in the 3900 block of Crestview Road in the city’s Chimborazo neighborhood. Officers arrived to find Hakeem W. Winston, 24, of the 800 block of Admiral Gravely Boulevard, suffering from a life-threatening gunshot wound. He was taken to a hospital, where he died.”
10/9: “One man who had been shot near the intersection of 17th and Main streets was pronounced dead… Police identified the man killed as Oscar W. Lewis II, 25, of the 1700 block of N. 29th St. The other man, Deonte M. Bullock, 19, of the 2200 block of Carrington Street, was pronounced dead at the hospital Sunday afternoon.”
10/12: “Richmond Police responded to the 1800 block of O Street just before 1 a.m. There they found the shooting victim, described only as a juvenile, shot multiple times.”
10/13: “Credible reports of shooting at a house near 20th and Brauers, “crazy gunfire” from “a big f****** gun” from a car with NY plates.” (My son and I were down the street; it was one of the last times he thought the sounds were fireworks.)
10/15: “A juvenile is recovering after being shot at an apartment complex in the 1400 block of Jennie Scher Road, just off Government Road. Police say the boy was shot in the leg and is expected to be OK.”
11/2: “A Richmond school bus carrying 12 students from Armstrong High School was shot multiple times in the city’s East End on Wednesday afternoon. A fight on the bus preceded the shooting, police said, though authorities said they were not yet sure whether it was connected to the shooting, which was reported just before 3 p.m. at the intersection of Sussex and Whitcomb streets.”
I remember hearing about the bus being shot. The fact that more and more youth have been impacted, and more and more of these events are happening during the day, was infuriating. None of the youth were seriously injured or killed, but only a matter of inches decided that. You can’t control a bullet once it leaves the gun; most people can’t even control the bullet as it’s leaving the gun; it is only by the grace of God that the hundreds of bullets fired in our neighborhood this year have only killed 15.
But they still killed 15.
I thought about the bus shooting most of the afternoon. As I sat in our front yard, while the kids played on the play set, I found myself thinking through what I’d do if there was a drive-by on our block. At some point, my thoughts were interrupted by the loud, piercing squeal of tires.
“POP POP POP!”
I saw the black SUV, half a block away, speeding off from the white tire smoke and travelling bullets, going past my house and out of sight.
I was proud of my “Dad mode”: in a quick swoop, I grabbed a kid in each arm, rushed them up the steps, and told them to get in the house. My son, almost 5, has never had to be rushed into the house, and was confused; “Why do we have to go inside?”
“Those were gunshots. I need you and your sister to go in the house.”
I remember his face when it set in that something was wrong. It wasn’t sadness, or fear, but something else, something heavier. I let my father-in-law, who had also been outside, get them settled while I went out to call 911 and look for anything to report.
I’ve been in enough intense situations to know that I’m not fazed easily, and can quickly shift into action-mode. As with many times that I’ve heard shots, I was able to calmly, and promptly, make observations and describe the situation to the dispatcher. Something, though, was different this time.
When my wife arrived home, perhaps 15 minutes later, I was on the porch, waiting to make sure she got in safe. “What’s wrong?” she asked, and I realized I was hit with some emotion, and couldn’t speak for a minute. Over the course of the night, I sat with that heaviness, trying to understand it; at first I thought it might be because my kids were outside, and I literally had to snatch them up and run, but that wasn’t it.
It hit me the next day.
We were in the front yard again, and my son was beside me.
“Listen: when you hear gunshots, I want you to immediately lay on the ground unless I tell you otherwise, okay?” He nodded quietly; before going to bed, he had spent time processing the shooting with my wife, and was still grappling with it. He didn’t understand why she said guns could hurt people, but his friends had nerf guns. He thought that we couldn’t play outside anymore. And now, his dad was telling him to lay on the ground when he heard shots.
I was struck by the fact that I was instructing my little, blond haired, white skin son what to do during a drive-by, something I would have never considered needing to do. I immediately realized that countless parents around my home have no choice but to tell their kids.
In that moment, I realized that the heaviness I felt was the shift of gun violence going from “there” to “here”. I could no longer distance myself from it by saying, “It’s mostly in upper Mosby.” It was in front of our house, with our kids outside, while the sun was still out; and this is the daily reality for so many in my community.
Gunshots faze me, because my neighbors matter.
Someone I know, when I asked people to pray about the gun violence in my neighborhood, said, “Time to move to a new neighborhood?”
There was a firm, resounding “NO” in my heart.
“When we moved in, we knew what was on the table. We also know God loves this community, and that we have the opportunity to stand and pray alongside our neighbors as things like this happen.”
Growing up, gun violence was distant from me, nothing more than something I’d see on the news, or be entertained by in movies. When I chose to begin living incarnationally while serving through a ministry, gun violence was a novelty, a crazy story I could tell others, or a badge of credibility. When I began to call my current neighborhood home, I began to realize gunshots impacted my neighbors. When more time passed, I began to care more.
It took over a decade for it to click that investing in and caring for a community are important, but incomplete; it took seeing a gun shooting so close to my children for me to realize that REALLY becoming a part of a community means becoming a part of all of it — even the most broken and frightening parts. And after: to remain.
For me, it means continuing to sit on the front porch, play in the front yard, and connect with neighbors. It means calling people to pray about gun violence, rather than joke (“It’s Church Hill, what do you expect?! LOL”). It means continuing to open our home to the dozen or so middle-schoolers who are mentored there by CHAT staff and volunteers, so that they have a safe and supportive space.
But don’t for a moment assume I’m something special, or that I should be applauded. There are far more spectacular pillars in my community, and I’m merely going where God says to go. I’m merely seeking to live into how each of us should serve our communities.
Jesus saw the violence, brokenness, and injustice around him daily, and he chose to remain in and fully engage those spaces. If I can mirror even a part of that, I’ll know I’m heading in the right direction.
Read more at www.wheredidyouseeGod.com/writings