The first time Marcia Owen asked the mother of someone who had just been murdered what she needed, Owen was terrified, she says.
She worried the woman would ask for something she couldn’t give.
Instead it was, “Come back. Come back and see me,” the woman said.
“That’s what I would say too,” says Owen, the executive director of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.
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Since then Owen has worked with hundreds of homicide victims’ families, many of whom she still stays in touch with.
“What we need from one another, is nonjudgmental, humble, compassionate, merciful listening,” Owen, 61, said. “The dignity to not assume.”
At the end of the year, Owen will step down as the coalition’s director, a position that has shaped her as much as the organization. Founded 24 years ago, the coalition holds monthly community luncheons, public candlelight vigils for homicide victims and provides other support to families working their way through the grief of a sudden, traumatic loss. The coalition also offers support for inmates leaving the prison system.
Owen has volunteered and worked for the coalition since the beginning, but started working part-time for the organization around 1999.
She will continue to volunteer for the coalition, she said. She plans to continue explore ways to support those affected by violent crime and pursue restorative justice conferencing. Here are excerpts from a recent interview as Owen prepares to step down.
Q: What is the hardest part of your job?
Owen: It’s keeping my heart open. Keeping an open heart is really maintaining a place of non judgment and living in the truth that love grows and that you belong to me and that we live in this indescribable mystery of equity of being equally blessed. That if I do make a judgment I promise myself the only judgment I will make of you is that you are equally blessed by God.
Q: Is there a particular shooting that sticks out for you?
Owen: There are so many.
My friend Tony’s death would be the one that sticks out the biggest for me. Tony Williams was a young man who came home from prison. He grew up in Durham. He went to Durham School of the Arts. He had so much charisma you almost had to put on your sunglasses. He was just that kind of guy.
He was about 23. He came home from prison, and had been there quite some time. He asked for a faith team, part of the coalition’s reconciliation and re-entry ministry. And so we got to know him really well. And to know him is to love him. It was hard coming home with a felony record and a drug charge. No Pell grant. No public housing. Everything was just nuts. But all he really cared about was relationship, friendship.
On March 28, 2008 he was shot and killed. He died in the arms of a wonderful woman who came to his vigil just to let us know that he died in her arms and that he was cared for.
Nobody has ever been arrested. That is really hard. I think he changed my life in a big way.
It gave me almost just a peak of what the families are experiencing. He was a friend. What if he was my son? I just had lunch with his mother and sister this week.
His vigil was really incredible for me. I needed the vigil. I got to see what it felt like to be surrounded by complete strangers who had had no knowledge of Tony before the vigil. They came to stand in unity and the grief and with such gentleness with the family and friends and the kids.
And he was so beloved. His mom called me (after he was killed) saying we need a church. We go to this little church. This little storefront. There is no way. And Watts Street Baptist Church is Tony’s church. I am sure they would. She’s like it’s not big enough. His funeral was in Duke Chapel. He filled the church. That’s my Tony. I had no idea.
Q: How has your work with the coalition changed the way you pray?
Owen: When I began this, I prayed the way I was taught, which is to tell God what I want.
That’s not what I do anymore. I listen. And it’s a fundamentally different relationship with my neighbor and with God. It hit me one day there is no faith in my telling God what to do. It is insane.
Being quiet and listening to others and knowing that the voice of God is with others. And that I don’t need to do anything but to listen, and listening could probably be the greatest prayer I could every pray. Whether I am listening by myself, quietly, silently, or I am listening to someone who is experiencing the worst thing that could every befall anything.
Q: Do you feel like Durham has made any progress in addressing violence?
Owen: I think if we just look at the sheer numbers of death, no. And I really do believe the reason is we have not admitted that we can’t do it. That the people who need to lead us into the Promised Land are the people who are most affected. The end. That’s it. Obviously we don’t know.
It’s sort of like saying, I am going to be the coach, but I’ve never played.
Q: Do you feel like the coalition is making a difference.
Owen: It is certainly making a difference in the lives of those who are involved. It’s kind of almost a daily occurrence where somebody calls me and says “I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know how I would have made it through.”
Q: What have you learned?
Owen: I’ve learned that love is real. That you can live a life of the soul.
I think what I have learned, how deeply true it is that we are going to be extinguished. That’s who we are. These organisms. We have a life cycle. And we also have this experience of being human that there is a mystery. You feel it. You can’t prove it. Why when I read your paper and I hear of a tragedy, I feel. I think that is the soul. I don’t think it is fear. I don’t think it is ego. I think it is soul.
So that is what I have learned: that love exists in relationship, in non-domination and in eternity.