They belong to a club every member would give her all to leave.
Tina Chery is a member of two decades’ standing. Her son Louis Brown, 15, was shot on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester on a Monday afternoon in 1993. He was caught in gang crossfire on his way to a Teens Against Gang Violence event.
Scarlett Lewis joined five months ago. One morning last December, her 6-year-old son, Jesse, wrote “I love you” on her car’s foggy window. Within hours, he was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn.
On Thursday, these mothers of murdered children, friends now, sat at a table in the library at the institute Chery founded in Louis’s name, talking about their sons.
About Louis, the honors student who bought roses to hand out to girls at school, who wanted to be the first black president, who hated fake Christmas trees and loved his mother’s fried chicken, who collected Matchbox cars and, for reasons nobody understood, TV guides.
And about Jesse, the loving, rough-and-tumble child whose energy filled his family’s home, who loved toy soldiers and little rubber ducks, which he carried around in his Spiderman bag, or stored in a special box.
When you lose a child to violence, it’s a constant battle to avoid surrendering to rage and despair. Lewis made the decision to fight it while she was still in the firehouse where parents of missing first-graders gathered to wait for news on the day of the Sandy Hook shootings.
“So many kids were missing, it was unfathomable that they could be dead,” she recalled. “They’re hiding. Maybe they ran into the woods. We had hope, but also a sense of oncoming reality.” That reality: Jesse was not one of the nine children in his classroom who fled to safety while Adam Lanza was reloading his weapon. He was the child who told them to run, then was targeted himself.
Lewis had to hold it together for JT, Jesse’s 12-year-old brother, who waited with her that day. She had to find a way to make something good from this unimaginably awful event. People around her — other parents, political leaders, strangers who sent beautiful letters from as far away as Saudi Arabia — showed her a way.
“Reacting to the tragedy by choosing love, that’s what our town did, what our nation did, what our world did,” she said. “I wanted to see how I could keep that momentum going. For me, it was a matter of survival.”
It was hard to see the path in those first agonizing weeks, in the fog of incomprehension, denial, shock. “It takes the human brain a while to accept the finality of that loss,” Lewis said. Well-meaning friends offered advice that made her feel hemmed in. Talk of the stages of grief seemed way too simple.
“They’re so neat,” Chery said, chuckling. “Society likes to put us in little boxes.” She, too, lived in that fog, even as she tended to her two younger children, aged 4 and 18 months when Louis was shot.
“In the days afterward, I had depression,” she said. “I had land mines, and I couldn’t step on them. I got rid of the alcohol in our home. You have to make a conscious decision: Do I let the devil inside me come out, or do I choose the God part, and educate people?”
While the grief of losing a child knows neither geography nor skin color, the outside world is far more discriminating.
Despite the fact that she lived in a troubled part of Dorchester and not a bucolic town in Connecticut, Chery felt untouched by violence before her son died. “I went to church and was a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I lived that comfortable life.”
When he was murdered, people immediately asked if Louis had been in a gang, “as if there is a good victim, and a not-good victim,” Chery said.
“They messed with the wrong black child,” she said. “I needed people to understand, this nation lost a leader. This could be your son.”
She found her life’s work in that stinging injustice. By telling the world about Louis, she would try to make every victim of violence a whole person, including those who fired the shots. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was born.
Lewis, who wanted to start her own education foundation, found Chery online and wrote to her for advice. The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation aims to bring lessons on moral values and compassion — which can be as simple as teaching the golden rule — into more classrooms. Her aim, like Chery’s, is to head off violence long before someone feels angry or isolated enough to pull a trigger. Both women figure doing that is as important as pushing for gun control — a cause that has made distressingly few gains even in the wake of the massacre that shocked the nation.
“Parents are doing a lot of different things,” Lewis said. “But we’re all trying to get to the same goal: leaving a happier, healthier, safer environment for our children.”
To that end, Lewis will be back in Boston this morning, marching in the annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace that Chery began 17 years ago. As her Mother’s Day gift, her son JT will be beside her. They will be joined by thousands of other people from across the state, from Unitarian, Episcopal, and other parishes as far away as Walpole and Newburyport.
Starting at Fields Corner and winding through the neighborhood, the thousands of white, black, Hispanic, Asian, urban, suburban, and rural marchers will send this message: Violence touches everyone, no matter where it happens, or to whom.
Jesse belongs to all of us, and so does Louis.