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.
The two men sit in a car on the edge of the Burger King parking lot. Soon they will go inside, where one will eat fries – he calls them his biggest vice – while the other, who wants to lose weight, drinks a diet Coke. Now they point out the apartment building in front of them: yellow brick, with cherry trees in bloom.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's where my son was murdered," says one of the men. His face barely registers emotion as he speaks, not because there's no pain but because this is a story Michael Person has told innumerable times. His son, Michael Greene, had done good and bad in his short life. At 26, having just signed a record deal, Greene seemed poised to turn a corner before he was shot to death during a 2001 dispute over drug turf.
The story is wrenching in itself but cuts deeper when Mr. Person explains that he also lost his sister, brother, nephew, and niece to homicide. And this particular spot, an unremarkable corner of Columbia Road and Washington Street, has a terrible history of its own: two murders since Greene's as well as the homicide of Person's nephew a block away.
Person turns to the other man, who wears tweed casuals and a baseball cap. "Your nephew, he was killed a couple of miles away, right?"
William Dickerson shakes his head. "Mile and a half," he says. "Upham's Corner."
At first glance Person and Mr. Dickerson – who together lead the First Response Ministry of the Greater Love Tabernacle Church (GLT), which seeks to both curb violence and support those victimized by it – seem not to have much in common. Although both grew up here in large African-American families, their lives followed different trajectories.
By any measure, Dickerson was headed for success from the start: Boston Latin School, Cambridge College, a master's degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He served as Protestant chaplain for the Boston Police Department and in 1989 founded GLT, which draws hundreds to its Sunday services.
Person took a more circuitous path to the point of intersection the two men now share. A self-described former player in the street scene, Person dropped out of high school, and, after becoming a father at 18, turned to hustling before joining the Army in 1978 and slowly, over a period of decades, righting his life.
Despite the differences, Person and Dickerson are now close friends bound by the urgency of their mission. Together they offer GLT's complex mix of comfort to homicide victims' families, tough love to those who witnessed or participated in a crime, and preventive education for those not yet caught in the street.
Others involved in the fight against urban violence hold First Response in high regard. "To know that there are supports in place by fellow community members is hugely important," says Janet Connolly, deputy chief of staff for the Boston Police Department. "It's exactly what the city needs."
The help received from Person and Dickerson is "invaluable," according to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. "An important part of [their] credibility is that they've never compromised their independence even as they've worked toward the same goals that we in law enforcement have."
When a homicide occurs, Person may go to the scene and escort the family to the hospital while Dickerson remains in the neighborhood trying to defuse tensions. During the ensuing days, they continue to support the community and help plan a funeral for the victim. They also work to get witnesses to come forward and perpetrators to turn themselves in, typically accompanying them to the police station.
The two men have a close and mutually respectful relationship. "He has a heart for the people," Person says of Dickerson. "He can find goodness in the worst person in the world." Person pauses, blinks. "He is more than a brother."