Jessica* first met an advocate from Atlanta Victim Assistance 24 hours after her boyfriend murdered her grandmother, grandfather and her 12 year old son. Together Jennifer and her AVA advocate attended the funerals, the arraignment and the trial. Ultimately, her boyfriend was convicted of the murders. During the year that her family’s case passed through the criminal justice system Jennifer warned women about the consequence of domestic violence by volunteering as a court advocacy assistant, attending domestic violence support groups and even shared her story at Victim’s Rights Week activities.
From victim to victor, Jessica got involved to change lives for women living in violence. Get involved.
Somewhere in her home there’s a letter from the man who killed her son.
Brenda Muhammad has no idea where it is or what it says. She never read it. It was sent to her after he was convicted in the shooting death of 16-year-old friend and neighbor, Norbren Muhammad. Although she’s made peace with the crime and forgiven the perpetrator, the letter is the one piece of unresolved business lingering in the aftermath of her son’s murder twenty years ago.
How, you ask, can a mother ever accept her child’s murder? How does the woman who gave him life ever make peace with having to disconnect the machines that kept him alive? The son born on Father’s Day, buried on her birthday. It was a hard pill to swallow. And yet grace appeared in a higher calling. In founding an organization to advocate for victims of crime, Muhammad found her salvation. Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters (MOMS) had her name written all over it.
Talking about her first born son, two decades later, Muhammad is calm, serene. She takes comfort in what she calls ” the luxury of his memories.” It gives her the chance, she says, “To see him, to feel him, to smell him again.” Without any hesitation, she wistfully recalls his youthful humor, his mischievous nature. A handsome young boy, Norbren dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. Those dreams went with him. But his mother’s love remained vigilant. Muhammad’s profound grief was healed by a greater sense of purpose. She believes that God, in His infinite wisdom, had a plan for her life.
The odd beauty of tragedy, Muhammad believes, is that it prepares us for the work we are here to do. “Every challenge,” she counsels, “thickens the cushion for our fall. They get us prepared for what lies ahead. I now see that God was preparing me for the work I’ve done for the last twenty years.” Her work with crime victims has elevated her to unimagined heights.
In helping other grieving families, Muhammad was able to transform her tragedy into triumph. It wasn’t easy. The days and weeks and months following Norbren’s murder were torturous.
“I was in the worst pain you ever had. All I wanted to do was sleep.” She agonized about not being there to help her child, playing over and over in her head the scene of him as he lay dying in front of the neighborhood elementary school, gunned down by a young man that her family had welcomed into their home. The gunman was a neighbor’s kid who regularly hung out with her son. Angry over being asked to return a starter jacket Norbren had loaned to him, the young man shot him down in retaliation. Senseless.
And then, about a year later, came a revelation. Literally in the middle of the night. It was an answer to her incessant prayers for a reason, any reason, for such meaningless loss. A voice broke the stillness. She heard the proverbial voice of God instructing her to start an organization to help crime victims. He even gave her the name, which she wrote on a piece of paper in the dark. In that moment, her sorrow gave way to joy.
Since then, Muhammad’s life has been driven by a passion for making her son’s death count for something.
“I was uniquely qualified for this job,” she says. As a middle class victim, she was in a position to put a different face on teen violence that, at the time, was perceived as a crime of poverty. She became an eloquent spokesperson for all the parents whose voices went unheard. The message she delivered, in the worldwide media, to lawmakers and legislators, to various organizations, even to U.S. presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush, came from divine inspiration. “God opened doors for me to people and experiences,” she says now. “I was just saying what was given to me to say.” She reminded us that victims also have rights.
Elevating her mission, Muhammad folded MOMS into Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc.(AVA), where she leads the advocacy organization for victims’ rights and those of witnesses to crime. Under her leadership, AVA (www.atlantava.org) has expanded its scope to include homicide victims, giving support and information to over 5,000 people every year. In 2009 she celebrated the organization’s 25th Anniversary and her son’s posthumous birthday.
Norbren would have been 37 years old on Father’s Day.