Nearing Retirement, The Rev. Henry Brown Remains Passionate In Quest To Quell Violence
How Shooting Violence Shaped His Life
December 17, 2011
Gun violence has played a big role in the Rev. Henry Brown's life.
Brown, 62, is known by many as the face of Mothers United Against Violence, an organization he founded more than nine years ago to help families devastated by violence. Brown and the mothers that make up the group have gathered for hundreds of peace rallies and prayer vigils in the city at the sites of violent crimes.
Gun violence entered Brown's much earlier — on a January night in 1972 in rural Cusseta, Ga.
Brown, then 22, was celebrating his discharge that day from the U.S. Army with family members in a nightclub when he went outside to break up a dispute in the parking lot.
Brown thought everything was settled and went back into the club to join his family. He started to sit down when he saw a flash, and realized that the argument wasn't over.
"I was shot in the chest," said Brown, who spent a week in a coma after the shooting.
Afterward, Brown grew bitter about what happened to him, and wandered around the South for a few years before ending up in Hartford in 1975, where a brother had moved.
"I did a lot of drifting," said Brown, who worked at Pratt & Whitney for a while, then went back to Georgia.
Brown returned to Hartford in 1986 and got a job with the U.S. Postal Service as a mail handler. He continued to maintain a life of partying and getting into scrapes.
"I was pretty much a hell-raiser," Brown said. "I didn't care about nothing. I was living for me."
But on July 5, 2001, gun violence would make perhaps its greatest impact on Brown's life.
It was the day after 7-year-old Takira Gaston was shot in the face in the city's North End, an unintended victim of a rolling gunfight between rival drug dealers.
"When that little girl got shot in the face, I knew what I needed to do," Brown recalled. "That was the day my whole life changed."
Brown got involved with a group called Hope Street Ministries, which was trying publicize the violence plaguing the city at the time and force city leaders into action.
The ministries group was led by civic activists Larry Woods and the Rev. Cornell Lewis. Woods eventually left for Florida and Lewis moved out of Hartford and eventually faded, for the most part, from the public spotlight.
But Brown continued on and in November 2003, Mothers United Against Violence was born out of his frustration over what he called "so much violence and social injustice." Today there are about 50 mothers involved with the group.
"They are faithful, dedicated people," said Brown, who graduated from Hartford Seminary in 2006 and was ordained by the Heart of God Church in 2007.
In addition to the prayer vigils, the organization has sponsored annual remembrance days and organized marches on city hall and the state Capitol demanding that politicians take action against violence. One march featured supporters carrying hundreds of white crosses bearing victims' names.
Brown has also taken aim at other clergy, the city council and both former Mayor Eddie Perez and current Mayor Pedro Segarra for what he sees as their indifference and inaction toward reducing violent crime in the city, especially this past summer when there was a series of murders and shootings.
A shooting task force was formed in July, but Brown wondered why it took a crisis of violent crime for Segarra to respond.
Segarra who declined respond Brown's criticism, but issued a statement saying that he applauded and respected Brown's commitment.
"Violence is an issue that we are working tirelessly to combat, and I am grateful to have Rev. Brown as a partner in this effort, as he constantly reminds us that this is something for which we must all take responsibility and ownership," Segarra said.
Henrietta Beckman, a member of Mothers United Against Violence, was a founding member of the group. Her son, Randy, was murdered in 2002. She said Brown and the organization have had a profound impact on victims' families.
"If we didn't do this, people would feel like their loved ones died in vain," Beckman said. "People call him. It's something they want and need."
But the Rev. Cornell Lewis, a social worker whond teaches at Capital Community College, said he has doubts about the effectiveness of the vigils and the group.
"On the one hand, he is a man of action, but on the other, that action doesn't seem to be going anywhere," Lewis said.
Lewis, who has not joined Brown's effort, said he tried to warn him of the limits of staying with a religious message.
"He's not listening because he's caught up in a religious paradigm. If you want to stop the killings you have to move beyond prayer and get others involved," Lewis said. "When you say a prayer and then people go home — I have issues with that."
Brown, who said Lewis was invited to join Mothers United Against Violence but declined, continues to rely heavily on Christianity and prayer. He has formed a group of street preachers who take their message to different corners in the city twice a week.
But he has also tried to widen his audience with "Real Talk," a weekly Hartford public access television program.
Now, as he approaches retirement from the post office, Brown is hoping to find a home base for his ministry and Mothers United Against Violence and devote his efforts there full time. He said he would like to continue to speak out on behalf of victims of violent crime, but also reach out to people coming out of prison, offering them support and guidance in the hope of keeping them from committing a violent crime of becoming a victim of one.
"I'm dedicating my life to giving our youth another chance," he said.
But that won't replace the prayer vigils, which he said will continue.
"That's always going to be a part of who we are," he said. "Always."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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