First and Foremost, I’m a Mother

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| This is the 383rd story of Our Life Logs |


In 1953, I was born and brought up in Memphis, Tennessee. Being the fourth of fourteen children, there was little love or food to go around in our household, and from an early age, I wanted out as soon as I could manage. To make a long story short, I did. I got married at 15 years old. By 22, I was a single mom with four children, living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I’m not saying it wasn’t hard to raise my kids alone (that would be a lie!), but I loved being a mother with all my heart. When my children hit their milestones, I jumped for joy! When they needed help with homework or with a project, I was right there.

I raised all my kids to be kind and loving, but there was something special about my youngest, Jeffrey, that drew people to him. He was kind-hearted, always put others’ needs before his own. All the neighborhood kids loved him. He would share his candy to anyone passing by and would give away his shoes and clothing to other little boys and girls without. What little kid is that generous?! Jeffrey was. He always was.

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My four precious children.

For a while, our neighborhood was a safe little place to live. We were all just a bunch of lower-class families trying to get by. But over time, the area crumbled. Drugs, namely cocaine, took up a permanent residence. Suddenly, all the local boys saw drugs as a way to make a quick buck, a way to escape poverty and provide for their families. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that desperation. It was the reason that my older son got involved and found himself in prison for 11 years. Still, it was terrifying, and with Jeffrey so young, I made sure to encourage him to stay out of the drug game and get an education.

When Jeffrey grew, his muscles grew with him. By the time he was 15, Jeffrey had developed a new reputation as the strong boy who really knew how to fight. He started hanging out with kids I didn’t recognize and staying out later than he used to. Still, he always gave me a hug goodbye and told me about his day at dinner—he always kept his good heart. Even so, I had no idea what he was getting up to when he walked out our front door.

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One day after Jeffrey had turned 18, he came home shaken up, saying that some guys were after him. As a mom, I wanted to go see if we could find them and talk it out, but that didn’t happen. Over the next three weeks, Jeffrey was on edge and short with everybody. He did not act like the boy I knew. I began to get worried and asked my oldest daughter to take him in for safety.

I came home February 16, 1994, the day Jeffrey was supposed to leave for his sister’s home, and found him sitting in the living room. He told me he’d changed his mind. Frustrated, I went up to bed.

I woke to gunshots. This wasn’t too surprising, as the neighborhood was littered with gangs. Still, I felt the urge to get up and check. I saw the front door hanging wide open and Jeffrey on the floor. At first, I asked him, “Why’s the door open?! It’s cold out!”

Then, I saw the pool of blood framing his body. I saw the way he was lying, the way his eyes had rolled into the back of his head. I rushed to his side, scooped him into my arms, and let out a deep, wail that I couldn’t believe escaped from my mouth. My Jeffrey, my baby boy—how could this happen?

Jeffrey had a life ahead of him. He was just two weeks from high school graduation. He’d been taken just when he was about to start truly living. I held my baby boy one last time as his blood soaked into my skin. I will never forget that day.

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In the year that Jeffrey died, there were 36 deaths in our neighborhood. That meant 36 murders, 36 funerals, 36 families who turned to me in their grief, knowing I shared their pain. I hate to say that I got burned out on funerals, but it’s true. I couldn’t bear to see another loss in our community. Violence became the norm in Grand Rapids.

In the years following Jeffrey’s death, I devoted my life to helping the police find the people who killed Jeffrey, as well as the other boys who were killed. I called in tips all the time. If I was focusing on finding the culprit then I could distract my aching heart from the reality that my son was gone forever.

But as one year turned to four, lead after lead became dead ends and the number of murders made my son’s case less of a priority. Guilty thoughts hurled into my conscious like a flood. Maybe Jeffrey would still be alive If I had tried to move us out of the community…or maybe if I’d forced him to go to my daughter’s…I didn’t like having these kinds of thoughts.

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After five years of searching, the authorities finally collected enough evidence to convict my son’s killer: Valmarcus Jones. I hadn’t really known him. He was our across-the-street neighbor, a man not much older than Jeffrey. All these years, I thought I’d feel better when they caught him, but no. The grief remained steady on the surface.

When I was called up to make my victim statement during the trial, I turned to Val and realized…I wasn’t angry. Being angry wouldn’t bring Jeffrey back. I saw in him what my son could have been, a product of his environment where violence had become as routine as brushing your teeth.

With my watery eyes on Val, I kept hearing the word “forgive” over and over in my head. I thought if it were my son on trial for murder, wouldn’t I want him to be forgiven?

I didn’t want this boy to be locked away forever without knowing that I forgave him and held no malice toward him. As a mother, I had compassion for him, despite what he did, despite the pain he caused me.

I said, “Val, I love you, I forgive you, and I hope you find God.”

Valmarcus didn’t plead guilty or own up to his acts of violence, even though the evidence was as clear as day. In 1999, Val was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

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I was in contact with Val in the first few years after the sentencing. I wanted to understand why he did it, but I couldn’t get past his rough exterior. Val was rude and standoffish when we spoke, refusing to give me details, let alone confess that he’d done it. He’d say things like “I hope you don’t still think I killed your son.”

Then in 2001, I decided to cut ties with him. All my empathy toward him couldn’t outweigh the exhaustion I felt. He wasn’t going to apologize, and I was running on empty.

But I knew that couldn’t be the end for me. Drugs and violence were monsters flooding our community and I needed to do something constructive.

I decided it was time to fight for change. I began volunteering in my community and campaigning to stop the violence in Grand Rapids. It had to stop. I knew one way to help prevent that was to help impoverished families, so, in my son’s honor, I started the city’s first food pantry. I organized a meet-up with all the gangs to help orchestrate a truce. I attended rallies with an organization called Moms on a Mission where we posted pictures of our dead children in hopes of scaring kids straight. I’d tell kids passing by, “If you don’t want your mama sitting on this street corner, you better stop the violence.”

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Sitting with a picture of my boy, Jeffrey.

After a while, I became known as “Mama Jerline” in the neighborhood. If boys were fighting in the streets and saw me coming, one of them would say, “Stop! Here comes Jeffrey’s mom!”

For the next 15 years, this was my life—throwing myself full throttle into giving back to my community. In helping others, I didn’t allow myself much time to reflect and deal with my pain. It was easier to remain distracted than sit in my grief and remember that my son’s killer hadn’t confessed to the murder. For years, I begged God to let Val apologize, take this pain away. I already forgave him, but how could he forgive himself if he remained in denial and refused to allow peace in his heart?

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In February 2017, I got a call from Val. I sucked in a sharp breath as I answered.

Val told me he was sorry for killing Jeffrey, for being terrible all those years, for denying it, for refusing to find God. Finally, Val asked for my forgiveness. I was so shocked that I dropped the phone and burst into tears. It was like a huge weight was lifted off me and after years of running from my pain, I felt it all at once.

Next, Val wanted to tell me why he did it, the burning question I’d had all those years. Yet, at that moment, I realized that knowing wasn’t going to bring Jeffrey back. Maybe he did it to show his neighborhood he was tough, maybe he had a grudge against my son. Regardless, the damage was done and knowing would only bring me more pain. I told Val that I didn’t need to know and, in saying that, I knew I was turning a corner in my journey of grief. I could finally start to heal.

From there, I kept in contact with Val. I got to know more about him and how much he had changed. Through the prison, he started taking classes with Calvin College and formed a deep relationship with God. This helped him come clean about my son’s murder.

As we talked on the phone and wrote letters, I found that he was so much like my son. Deep down, his heart was good. And wouldn’t you know, Mama Jerline soon felt a motherly connection with him. I believe God doesn’t take what he doesn’t give back. He took my Jeffrey, but he gave me Val in return, a chance to help another soul, a man with a little family who needs love and support. Who’s better for the job than me—a woman who understands the power of forgiveness and loves being a mother?

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Since getting to know Val, I have been writing to city and state leaders, judges, and organizations to help appeal his sentence, to give him a chance to get out. We as humans are all flawed and we all deserve forgiveness. If you don’t forgive, how will you ever move on?

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Speaking with a representative of Restorative Justice at Calvin College.

I have enough experience with grief to write a novel, maybe even two. But I don’t want my story to be about grief. I want it to be about my journey to forgiveness. I want it to be about compassion. I want the violence to stop and people to love each other. I’m a wounded healer, but first and foremost, I’m a mother.

 

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This is the story of Jerline Riley

Jerline still resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the same house where she raised her children. Coming from a huge family, Jerline knew the hardships of life when she started on out her own in Grand Rapids, Michigan. When her son Jeffrey was murdered in her own doorway and the killer was caught, Jerline decided to forgive her son’s killer. Years later, she has got back into contact with the killer now that he’s on the road to redemption. She now sees the man who killed Jeffrey as her son and realized that in life, we must forgive even when it feels impossible or we will never move on. Jerline doesn’t do much for “fun” but continues to be very active in the community to help the Grand Rapids youth practice conflict resolution and get on a better path to life. She even went back to school at 49 and obtained her GED to show neighborhood kids that they could do it too. Jerline loves interacting with her community and helping however she can.

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Jerline, 2018.

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This story first touched our hearts on June 22, 2019.

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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