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Years after stabbing, former crime rivals find forgiveness

Strengthened by the power to forgive

Former bitter foes Vito Gray (left) and Victor Woods have found peace.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Former bitter foes Vito Gray (left) and Victor Woods have found peace.

While worshipers read Scriptures and sang hymns one Sunday morning, two men came across each other in the hallway of Dorchester’s Greater Love Tabernacle Church.

“I love you, man,” one said.

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A smile sprang to the other man’s face. “How’s the family?”

There was no sign of a dark past or the rage that had festered between them for two decades, ever since a brilliant autumn morning in a Mission Hill housing project when one of them got a knife and went hunting for the other, bent on retribution.

On that day in 1991, one man left the other for dead, with a deep gash in his gut.

But now the two — Vito Gray and Victor Woods, former rivals who abided by seemingly immutable rules of the street — are friends. They say it’s because of a single transformative moment not long ago, when, in a brief exchange, they simply forgave each other.

Now they point to their example as a way to help bring peace to neighborhoods where young men kill one another — sometimes in endless cycles of revenge.

‘Our young men are threatened — by each other. Why? That’s what we have to find out. Once we eliminate the threat, then we can find a solution.’ — Vito Gray

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“This is a miracle,’’ Woods said of the path out of darkness he and Gray traveled. “Once you are in that life, it is really hard to get out.” Forgiveness, he said, can be a potent weapon, especially in gang cultures that demand violent responses to even the smallest slights.

Recently, Gray, arms and legs trembling, stood before the congregation in the Dorchester church, telling his story during an interfaith service as Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans listened in stunned silence.

He wants to convince them and other Boston leaders to enlist people like him and Woods to tell their stories in neighborhoods where violence has been flaring this year.

“Our young men are threatened — by each other,” he said. “Why? That’s what we have to find out. Once we eliminate the threat, then we can find a solution, because we can give them services or give them jobs. But if we don’t eliminate the threat, we’ll have a kid going to work with a gun in his pocket.”

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, the former executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, said some street conflicts have gone on for so long that the participants can’t even identify the cause of the original feud. He said that old rivals like Woods and Gray might teach young men to let go of old beefs, and that such messages should be incorporated in the effort to end violence.

“It’s time to revisit all forms of the antiviolence process,’’ Brown said.

Today, the lives of Gray, 44, and Woods, 53, bear little resemblence to their past. Gray is a father. Woods is a grandfather. They say they got there through faith, a pastor who never gave up on them, and the hard lessons learned from wasted years in addiction.

There was a time when both were dangerous to other people — and to themselves.

When Gray was entering his 20s, he was a drug dealer with a growing criminal record and a user. By the time he was 21, he was hard to the core.

In November 1991, he recalled, he hid 10 small bags of heroin behind a radiator in a hallway in the Mission Hill housing development where he was living with his mother. He planted the drugs in a building away from his home and had planned on retrieving them later to sell and buy more drugs to feed his addiction.

But when he returned a few hours later the stash was gone.

Woods, dealing heroin and using himself, knew where to find the drugs. Everybody knew, he said. “I was the one who took it,” he acknowledges.

Rage consumed Gray as he pounded the streets of the development looking for Woods. He said he felt he needed to retaliate, to prove to the thief and anyone who knew him that there was a heavy price for such disrespect.

Around 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, he found Woods near Parker Street, according to documents in Suffolk Superior Court.

They knew each other and grew up in the same Mission Hill projects. They shared mutual friends.

“Where are the drugs that you took?’’ Gray demanded as he approached.

He didn’t wait for an answer. He plunged a knife into Woods’s hip and belly, holding tightly on to Woods as he crumpled, Woods testified to a Suffolk Superior Court grand jury in February 1992.

Gray said he stabbed Woods at least two more times in the legs.

Then he ran.

Woods did not see blood. Looking back, he recalls the knife and a male driver offering to take him to the hospital.

“That was the last thing I remember,’’ he recalled.

Wood told the grand jury that he had grabbed his stomach and began to scream. “I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding,’’ he testified.

A Globe photographer captured an image of Woods in the passenger side of the car, while two emergency workers tended to him. His face looked pained, his mouth agape.

“I was angry at Vito,’’ recalled Woods. “I was mad. I was real mad. It was all about revenge.”

Police found Gray a half-hour later. After he posted bail, he later helped to rob Woods of $58 and tried to intimidate him into not testifying against him, court records show. Gray eventually pleaded guilty in Suffolk Superior Court and was given an eight- to 10-year sentence at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole. He served 6½ years. He was angry at Woods for ratting him out.

“I was still struggling with a bad attitude and with addiction,’’ Gray says now.

After prison, he went back to Mission Hill and took up the same bad habits, with the same bad people. Police knew him by name.

By age 27, Gray was back in prison for drug possession. But during his four years at MCI-Shirley, he says, he changed. It started when a prison guard relayed news that Gray’s girlfriend lost their daughter, who was born prematurely. That day Gray said he got on his knees and prayed.

“I prayed because I couldn’t get the peace I wanted from anyone else,’’ he said. “I’m no preacher or anything, but God forgave me. And I felt happy. People say how could you be happy in prison? But I say, on that day I understood what forgiveness means.”

He asked the prison chaplain for a Bible.

Woods’s path came with its own suffering. After the stabbing, there was surgery and staples in his stomach. But he went back to the streets and the life he knew there. On his rounds, he said he had to walk past the Tobin community center, where the Rev. William Dickerson held church. He’d hear the preaching. And on Wednesdays around 7, he’d hear the choir rehearsing.

He started feeling guilty that he was dealing nearby, and he began staying away or leaving the area before church began. Still, he passed by. The soulful singing and the piano playing inside pulled at him, and finally he walked in.

For a while, he would sit in the back row quietly, listening.

Then he started helping out, packing up chairs after choir practice or sweeping up.

Eventually he became a member.

“At that time he was struggling,’’ said Dickerson. “He had his ups and downs.”

A few years later around 2001, Gray got out of prison and found Dickerson and his Greater Love Tabernacle Church. He learned that Woods was a member. It didn’t stop him from coming, but he made no contact.

Then, during a Sunday service three years ago, as the offering was being collected, Dickerson stood in the pulpit preaching and spotted Woods walking down from the balcony of the church, unknowingly heading toward Gray. Dickerson called both to the front of the church and there asked them to apologize to each other before everyone.

“I said ‘Victor, you wanted an apology and you also wanted to apologize,’ ” said Dickerson. “You can do it now before the whole church.”

Gray spoke first. He apologized for stabbing Woods and causing him pain.

Woods also said he was sorry.

The men hugged.

“I can’t describe how that felt,’’ said Gray. “It felt warm. I felt love.”

People cried. Men jumped out of their seats to join the embrace. The church said in chorus: “Hallelujah.’’

On a recent day inside the church, Gray, dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, picked up crumbled strips of tissue paper strewn on the burgundy carpet.

“There was a funeral here yesterday,’’ Gray explained.

Mourners had come to grieve Julien Jerome Printemps, a 22-year-old from Charlestown who was gunned down in Ashmont Jan. 26, a few hours after Gray shared his story of healing at the interfaith service. Printemps’s death drew little attention in the news.

Woods arrived at the church later and sat near Gray for an interview with a reporter. At one point, he lifted up his sweatshirt to expose the small stab wound on his stomach and the large incision doctors made to save him.

Gray said it hurts to know how much pain he caused.

“God has forgiven me, and I thank Victor for forgiving me,’’ he said.

He and Woods have put the past behind them. Woods is working now as a laborer in New York and isn’t around much. But the two share a new look on life.

Said Woods: “We are like brothers in Christ now.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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