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Two men minister to victims of violence in inner-city Boston

Michael Person and William Dickerson operate a 'first response ministry' that works to console victims' families and stem crime in Dorchester.

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By the 1990s, Person had turned his own life around after years of street life. While working as a cook at various city programs for youth offenders, he discovered an interest in outreach. He also remarried, became a born-again Christian, and got involved in the ministry.

At their home, Person and his wife instituted "family night." Every Wednesday, the couple and their four children – three grown – gathered to share a meal chosen by the kids and cooked by Person. The rule during dinner was that the kids got to talk, while the parents just listened.

It was on one of those Wednesdays that Greene, who attended regularly, failed to show up. A full day passed before anyone could bear to tell Person what had happened, and 13 more before his son's body was returned to him.

After the death, Person turned to his youth work with greater urgency. He was appointed the city's TenPoint Coalition liaison to the victim/witness program at the D.A.'s office. After he was ordained a reverend in 2001 at Christ Temple Church, he founded the First Response Ministry. Last October he became a member of GLT and transferred the program there.

As director, his role, while unpaid, is more hands-on than Dickerson's. Inside his many files is a master sheet simply titled "Homicides." On it he lists each victim's name, the location and date of the crime, and the cause of death. Pink highlighter indicates the active cases – currently more than 20.

If there's an edge of desperation to the First Response mission, it is because the city's murder rate has not shown a substantive decrease in more than a decade. As a result, although Dickerson and Person are both trained grief counselors and know much about consoling families, they also aim a pointed message of accountability and restraint at those who may have witnessed (or participated in) the crime.

Funerals are often the place where that message is delivered. Dickerson gave the eulogy at a 2006 memorial service for 20-year-old Analicia Perry, shot while kneeling to light a candle at the makeshift shrine of her brother, who had been killed at the same location.

"If you know who did this, give him up," Dickerson shouted that day from the pulpit. He told the mourners to go ahead and cry, but less for Perry than for themselves. She was in heaven, he said, while everyone else was still "here in this cold-blooded world."

Although both men are Evangelicals who freely cite the Bible, their work crosses boundaries of faith and culture. Often they sit in court with witnesses who speak little English, advocating for them amidst intimidating circumstances. They have attended memorial services inside a mosque and a Buddhist temple, and no matter who calls, no matter when, they rush to the scene – sometimes arriving before the crime scene has been secured.

Both men see the African-American church as playing a key role in stemming urban violence, through direct action and partnerships with schools and police agencies. Dickerson is particularly quick to acknowledge the value of religion of any kind in the lives of youths. "It's been shown that young people who have faith are less likely to be involved in criminality," he says.

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With his natural grace and oratory skills, Dickerson likely would have succeeded in the ministry almost anywhere. Instead, he chose to return to where he was raised. Dorchester is a proud place, one that over the decades has absorbed successive waves of immigrants and struggled to rid itself of poverty and violence.

Dickerson won't reveal exactly where he lives, out of concern for his family's privacy, but he and his wife have raised three children here. He is a thoughtful man who does not smoke, drink alcohol (or coffee), or eat red meat. That's not to say he stands apart from the world: He texts from his cellphone and dresses elegantly. When he laughs, his eyes light up.

Yet the work is taxing. Person has had serious health challenges, while Dickerson's face in repose holds a certain weariness. "He feels all of it," Person says of Dickerson. "I know him. I can see the pain."

Both men are mindful that their cellphones may ring at any moment. Recently Dickerson eulogized a young murder victim. After the service a boy approached. The service was impressive, he told Dickerson: "I want you to do my funeral." Person's eyes take on a haunted look as he recounts the story. "That's what this kid was thinking about. His funeral," he says. "That's what he saw in his future."