Every once in a while you come across someone who changes the way you think about the world. This amazing woman, this visionary leader, is one of those people.
Imagine your 15 year old son – a terrific kid, a bookworm, a youth working to make his community a better place, a dreamer with the goal of being president someday – is needlessly killed in gun crossfire while simply walking down the street. How do you cope? What do you do with your intense anger and grief?
Enduring the Unthinkable
If you’re Tina Chéry, you channel those intense emotions into finding solutions and working to stop the cycle of violence. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute is a center for healing, teaching and learning for families touched by homicide and dealing with the accompanying trauma. The Peace Institute was named for Tina’s son Louis who was a 10th grader on route to a meeting – ironically for Teens Against Gang Violence – when he was hit by a bullet intended for a gang member.
Tina and her family found there were virtually no resources available to help them manage the practical and emotional issues raised by homicide. They felt lost. They felt alone. They felt victimized all over again. She became determined to turn the power of her anger and pain into power for action and the Peace Institute was born.
Launching the Peace Institute: Catalyzing Hope and Healing
The Peace Institute is without peer in recognizing not only the pain and suffering of families who have lost a loved one to violence but also the pain and suffering of the families who have lost a loved one to prison. The Peace Institute serves both. In her infinite wisdom Tina came to realize that families on both sides of the homicide tragedy are stigmatized and ostracized. They are left alone in their pain and grief rather than supported to try and put the pieces of their lives back together.
The Peace Institute helps families deal with practical challenges such as planning the funeral services and laying their loved ones to rest as well as the emotional challenges of building their strength back up. They help families navigate the judicial system and learn from other families who have dealt with homicide. They work with children to help them articulate their emotions and find their strengths as well as equipping teachers to facilitate conversations about trauma and loss with their students. Importantly, they support those who are incarcerated with tools to help them manage their emotions and find greater peace in their hearts.
From a glint in Tina’s eye to a budget of nearly 1 ½ million dollars annually, the Peace Institute has come a long way.
I first learned about the Louis D. Brown Institute when Tina delivered a talk at my church. Subsequently, I participated with my husband and sons in the Institute’s annual Mother’s Day Peace Walk through the inner city neighborhoods of Boston. The Peace Walk serves to raise money and to show solidarity for so many families coping with the trauma of homicide.
The Peace Walk started in the mid 1990’s with Tina joined by a dozen friends. In the spring of this year, the Peace Walk had several thousand supporters, a throng so large that you could see nothing but a sea of people as you looked either forward or backward down the long and wide street. While walking in the most recent Peace Walk, my husband nudged me and asked, “Do you know who that is?” referring to the man walking in front of us in his jeans and hooded sweatshirt. My immediate response was “no” but upon a closer look I realized it was the former two-time governor of Massachusetts walking unobtrusively amidst the enormous crowd.
Reclaiming the Spirit of Mother’s Day
When I first learned about the Mother’s Day Peace Walk, I told my husband and sons that walking with me was the greatest gift they could give me. The Walk symbolizes everything Mother’s Day was founded for – coming together across differences, rejecting violence and war, and honoring peace and equality.
The history of Mother’s Day began with Julia Ward Howe in the mid 1800’s when she set out to create formal recognition for a Mother’s Day for Peace. During the Civil War, Howe worked tirelessly to support the orphans and widows who lost loved ones in battle. She worked with families from the North and South and she lectured about what she saw as the two most important issues for the country, peace and equality. She was fervent in her attempts to bring women together across the divide and to find all they had in common as they worked toward peaceful resolution of their differences. Her vision was for mothers to join together in protesting war, having seen the acute human costs of the Civil War, in order to protect their sons from this horrible fate.
Howe’s attempts to have the government declare a formal Mother’s Day for Peace failed but nearly 40 years later, Mother’s Day was first celebrated in West Virginia and soon spread to become a national holiday. Sadly the extension for Peace was dropped and our modern day version has become hijacked by commercial interests and all but lost its true meaning.
Befriending Your Enemy, An Act of Great Courage
During the 2016 Peace Walk there was a special speaker at the finish line, Charles Bowles the man who had killed Tina’s young son more than 20 years before. His words were poignant as he described the work of the Peace Institute and how it helped him to find love in his heart, to take responsibility for what he had done rather than blaming everyone and everything around him, and to focus his energies on contributing so that he could help stop the cycle of violence so common in his and surrounding neighborhoods.
Several years earlier, when Tina felt ready to go where few are willing to travel, she met Charles in prison. There she sat just inches away from the young man who pulled the trigger and denied her the many joys of watching her young son blossom into a man. Charles was deeply apologetic and wanted nothing more than to turn back time. When Charles’ parole was coming up, Tina surprised the legal community by indicating she would not block it. Rather than thwart Charles’ release, Tina supported Charles through the Peace Institute’s efforts to help men coming home from prison to deal with the social and emotional stresses of the transition.
Moving from Blame to Action and Breaking the Cycle
Lest you think Tina is a saint, and I confess I often wonder, she shared her initial response to the news that Louis Brown had been killed. It turns out there was another young man in her community, coincidentally with the same name as her son, who was killed about the same time. Tina shared that her thoughts upon hearing this news – of the other Louis – immediately went to that common narrative: a problem youth in trouble, probably from a broken home, not very smart, probably taking drugs, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Tina admitted to thinking, I’m sure glad it’s not me and my family. She said that distancing others in this way is a means to make us feel safe. But too often what it does is blame the victim who needs, instead of our criticism, our support and care.
Tina is working to reframe homicide from a public safety issue to a public health issue. She knows that homicide affects at least 10 other family members for every person killed and ultimately affects the whole community. The goal of the Peace Institute is to interrupt the cycle of violence and to stop the well-worn cycle of killer and killed. The Peace Institute is about hope, about healing, and about love.
The expression transformative leader gets bandied about but in my experience it is exceedingly rare to find a leader who fits the bill. Tina is one of those rare leaders who has been transformative in so many ways: transforming grief into action, transforming blame into support, transforming death into hope, and transforming tragedy into a whole new way of thinking about responding to homicide.
After a brutal presidential campaign and troubling result that make it difficult to have faith in human goodness, this Thanksgiving I feel especially grateful to know about the work of Tina Chéry whose spirit is indeed transforming our world.