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Over Troubled Waters

A comforter when tragedy strikes, Alicia Rasin fulfills a role unlike any other.

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ALICIA RASIN MAKES the rounds in a turquoise Mazda Miata on a sunny afternoon in Church Hill, taking drags from a Newport cigarette while she visits with families whose lives have been turned upside-down by tragedy.

It's her first set of visits in almost three weeks — a record intermission, she says, because she hasn't felt well and mostly has stayed home since organizing the vigil held April 28 for Church Hill resident Thomas Johnson, 27, a father of six who was killed on his motorcycle in a high-speed crash at 25th and M streets.

Dreadlocked and wearing bright yellow sunglasses, a brown, black and yellow patterned muumuu and thick gold bracelets, Rasin pauses periodically to wave to residents calling out to her — she has rings on every finger, with long, curling fingernails painted gold.

“Alicia!” a girl hollers from the sidewalk on 25th Street. Rasin acknowledges her, but doesn't know the young woman's name. After organizing hundreds of vigils, helping countless families through the grieving process, the names begin to run together. “I don't know these people,” she says. But she knows them in a way few people will.

Her first stop is on 27th Street, the home of Carrie Johnson, a friend of Rasin's and the grandmother of Thomas Johnson, who was fleeing police when he crashed his motorcycle April 24. Sitting in a bright kitchen next to a table overflowing with flowers, bath products and cards left over from Mother's Day, the grandmother is quiet. She hasn't gone out since Thomas died, and she was absent from the prayer vigil Rasin organized, where the crowd of mourners poured out onto 25th Street in the middle of traffic. “Too much for me,” Johnson says.

 

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Alicia Rasin leads the April 28 prayer vigil for Thomas Johnson, a 27-year-old father of six who was killed when his motorcycle crashed at 25th and M streets.

Rasin, 57, tries to prompt conversation. She talks about herself — it's her first day out in a while, she says. Johnson chuckles when Rasin, 57, jokes about starting to date again. “I need to start doing some things for me,” Rasin says.

“You go on trips,” Johnson points out. (Rasin takes vacations in the Bahamas.)

“Yeah but I go by myself,” Rasin says. Whoever she's with would have to understand, she says, that “what I do is my calling.”

Rasin next visits Fairfield Village, the apartments across from the Fairfield Court housing project where Mable Smith and Alfred Wiggins live. They're the parents of the late Shawn Smith, 26, who was shot and killed Jan. 28 while walking home from a store in the East End. Rasin knocks on a few doors and eventually finds the apartment with the help of onlookers and directions delivered over a cell phone. But before she gets there, a young woman in a tank top and shorts approaches: “Hi Alicia. You remember me?” She gives her name and tells Rasin her sister was killed in Jackson Ward in 1999. They hug.

Inside her home, Mable Smith sits in a chair across from Rasin. It's her day off from two jobs cleaning offices at Ethyl Corp. and serving food at Martin Luther King Middle School. Family photos fill a table against the wall — she's the mother of nine children.

“I think I'm doing better than he do,” she says, gesturing toward Alfred Wiggins, Shawn's father, who is retired and sits quietly in a chair off to the side. Wiggins wears a baseball cap with the words God Bless America across the top, with glasses, a white sweatshirt and sneakers. His legs are crossed and his arms folded; he's a long, lanky, silent contrast to talkative Mable's tiny, energetic figure.

“I'll probably never get over it,” he says. “He was my only son.”

Smith and Rasin hold hands while they walk down the front sidewalk of the apartment complex. They talk about gardening and potted plants that fill the small space in front of Smith's apartment door, making their way down a concrete stretch toward Rasin's car.

At the top of sidewalk steps that lead down to Fairfield Avenue and 20th Street, Smith stops. “Shawn was right here,” she says.

She points to the spot where her son collapsed after he was shot in the back. “He just was in the wrong place,” she says. He was walking back from a store on a Thursday afternoon before the evening shift he shared with his mother cleaning offices at Ethyl. She spoke with him just before he went out. After he was killed, she had to remind herself that whoever was knocking on her front door wasn't Shawn coming home.

Smith and Rasin say their goodbyes. “I know I can catch you on Saturday now,” Rasin says.
 

 

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Rasin, standing in one of Richmond's most notorious housing projects, Mosby Court, has seen Richmond through its deadliest years, particularly the mid-1990s when homicides regularly eclipsed 100 a year.

RASIN HAS BEEN leading prayer vigils for Richmond's victims of homicide for almost 25 years. The founder of Citizens Against Crime, she's worked with successive governors, mayors and police chiefs. Former governor and Richmond mayor Tim Kaine dubbed her “Richmond's Ambassador of Compassion” years ago. Her image is one of the first to flash across the Web page of the city police department, an agency she's in touch with almost every day.

Rasin helped guide the city through the worst and best of times, through more recent decreases in the murder rate to the notorious spate in the mid-1990s — more than 100 murders each year from 1990 to 1997, with a high of 161 in 1994 — that made Richmond one of the country's most deadly cities.

Her distinctive style — matching jeans and denim jacket in a pastel fatigue pattern, pink sunglasses and long dreadlocks at one recent vigil — is a frequent image on local television newscasts with the rash of public prayers for the killings that spike every summer.

The violence has quieted in recent years, but Rasin, who is not employed and receives disability benefits, continues in her self-appointed job: helping hundreds of individuals and families through the grieving process.

She visits and prays with them in their homes. She helps arrange funerals and connects people who are reeling emotionally with resources they may not know how to access. She answers phone calls at all hours of the night, organizes search parties for missing people and assists police investigations by being at the pulse of the community. Rasin's friends say she consistently risks her own health to do work that knows no boundaries or schedule. She'll give her cell phone number to anyone.

Perhaps her most important work, however, takes place after the vigil, following up with families trying to piece their lives back together.

 

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Rasin flips through a tattered prayer book, which she uses to track messages delivered at homicide vigils.

Back in her Miata, Rasin heads down Mechanicsville Turnpike to visit with Joyce Johnson, whose daughter Jill Edmonds disappeared in late January near the Powhite Parkway Bridge. Rasin held a news conference with the family and says she put up flyers for Edwards in Virginia Beach, Tappahannock and Williamsburg. Edmonds' remains were found in the waters of the James River in Charles City County in early April.

Johnson, a mother of 14 with big eyes and a soft face that make her look decades younger than her 68 years, says her missing daughter's twin brother took the loss especially hard. “I just let them talk, because they needed to talk,” she says of her children's struggles to get through the ordeal. “But I needed somebody too.”

The conversation turns to how community violence seems to be getting worse. “Wasn't like this when I was a child,” Rasin says. “Everybody on the block stayed together.”

Rasin and Johnson are worried for other people who have disappeared. “I need to look around in some cars for her,” Rasin says of a young woman who's recently been reported missing.

She bids Johnson goodbye, picking up her mail for her on the way out, and goes across the street to Sandra's Soul Food on Fairmount Avenue. Rasin parks, chats with employees and picks up a salad and a soda. A young woman walking through the takeout parking lot approaches Rasin while she's settles back into her car.

“Hey Ms. Rasin,” the young woman says, stopping at the car window. “You probably don't remember me, but you buried my daughter.”

“I'm going to keep you in my prayers, baby,” Rasin says.


 

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Rasin leads an emotional vigil for Apostle Anthony Taylor in Church Hill. The March 30 remembrance drew politicians and community leaders such as Delegate Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, right, and Pastor Antoine Brown of United House of Prayer for All People.

IN MANY WAYS, Rasin acts as a critical connector between the community and law enforcement. Virginia Commonwealth University Police Chief John Venuti, who worked for the Richmond police for 26 years and oversaw more than 450 homicide investigations from 2003 to 2010, says that in inner-city areas where residents tend to mistrust law enforcement, Rasin acts as a bridge between neighbors and officers. When Venuti was working for the city, Rasin often contacted him about crimes even before alerts came in from officers in the field.

“When something really bad happens,” Venuti says, “they call Ms. Rasin. And then they call police.”

“I talk to her daily, and depending on an event that happened the night before, we may talk as much as three times a day,” says Capt. Steve Drew, who oversees major crimes investigations for the city. “Many times people tell her things they won't tell us.”

Drew says one recent example that stands out was when a man working at a grocery store on Main Street went missing. Rasin helped lead a search with officers, family and friends, and within about half an hour they had a lead — which Drew credits to people on the street recognizing Rasin and coming forward with information. They found the man quickly; he'd died from a heart attack in a hotel room.

“She's like the mother of Church Hill,” says Commander Odetta Johnson, a 19-year veteran of the Richmond Police Department who began overseeing the city's 1st Precinct in Church Hill last year. Johnson's father, Ozell Johnson, also was a city police officer, and Odetta says she can't recall when she first became aware of Rasin because “she's just a constant memory from childhood.”

When Johnson transferred to the precinct, she reconnected with Rasin almost immediately — at a prayer vigil. Afterward, Johnson spent hours catching up with Rasin at her house. “We started talking there and have not stopped talking since,” Johnson says. Most of their conversations don't formally involve police work, but rather center on what's going on in the neighborhood and their personal lives.

“When you get to know people, it cuts down on a lot of unnecessary things,” Johnson says. “Alicia can say, ‘You know who I am.'”

Rasin has lived in a brick Victorian house, built in 1914, on Princess Anne Avenue since her family moved there when she was a toddler. It's decorated year-round in full-on Christmas regalia — twinkling lights and a wreath with red bows on the front porch and garlands of imitation poinsettias, ribbons and greenery inside on the ground floor — with a different theme color for each room.

The colors are turquoise and purple in the front living room, where a Christmas tree overflowing with baubles and purple tinsel hovers over presents, wrapped and unwrapped — baby dolls, a NASCAR coloring book, bright plastic Easter eggs. She picks them up at Wal-Mart or the Dollar Tree to give to children who report good behavior when they visit.

“That's why it's Christmas every day,” Rasin says, chuckling.

Framed certificates of appreciation fill the walls and prop themselves up along the floor; stories about Rasin published in newspapers stuff the room, along with photographs of politicians and family.

Growing up, Rasin was baptized Methodist but raised Baptist, so she considers herself “Methodist-Baptist.” When she was a girl, she traveled as a missionary with an uncle and aunt to Africa. Rasin started giving things away early on, she says — food to the homeless men across the street in Jefferson Park.

One early memory stands out to Rasin. She was in the car with her father, Malachi Rasin, on the way home from church, when she heard a woman screaming in the street. She begged her father to stop. He refused, but at the next traffic light Alicia jumped out of the car. Her father relented, waiting for her while she comforted the woman in the street over the body of her only son.

“You have me. And you have Jesus,” Alicia told the woman, remaining by her side until the police came. Later, she went by herself to console the mother in her home. “Spirit said ‘Go back,' I'm going back,” Rasin recalls.

Eventually her father made peace with — or at least got used to — Alicia leaving home at all hours of the day when she heard a call for help. “God has her. He has my daughter,” Rasin recalls her father saying.

“I was going to go anyway,” Rasin says. “You can't just ride and not stop.”

Rasin's father was the first black health inspector for the city and a prominent, devout member of the local community who attended Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church on the eastern end of Mechanicsville Turnpike. One day in September 2006, Rasin and her father, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer, had just come home from Wesley Memorial, settling in to watch “American Idol,” when he collapsed and died.

“I was daddy's girl, daddy's baby,” Rasin says. Rasin has no children of her own but her experience losing her father, and the loneliness that she's experienced now that he's gone, is a grief she struggles with. She says she can only imagine the pain families go through when they lose a child to violence.

After her father's death, Rasin, who says her health has been beset over the years by a brain tumor, blindness and stomach cancer, had another scare of her own — a clogged artery in her heart. She underwent heart surgery, but she has to be careful, she says, resisting the urge to visit families when she's too exhausted.

“It's like the devil knows when I'm feeling better,” she says.

Some years ago, in the early 2000s, she almost quit. “I was just burnt-out tired,” she says. Rasin planned a news conference across from her house in Jefferson Park, intending to inform the community that God had other plans for her besides holding vigils. But the night before the conference, Rasin says she had a vision from God that included the letters C.A.C. The next day, instead of announcing she was quitting, she asked community members to join her in her efforts to form Citizens Against Crime to assist with her work.

 

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A child's casket, given to Rasin by Church Hill funeral director O.P. Chiles, is stored in the back trunk of Rasin's van. She shows it to community residents, especially youth, to advance her message of stopping crime.

Rasin's methods can be unorthodox. For example, sometimes she shows teenagers on the street a small white casket donated to her by Church Hill funeral home director O.P. Chiles. The casket, made out of material that feels like heavy Styrofoam, is wrapped in tattered plastic with a bouquet of fake pink roses on top. It has a baby doll inside, and when it's working the doll is supposed to sing, “I have joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”

The whole getup, Rasin says, is designed to powerfully relay her message of nonviolence — an unlikely but effective deterrent. “People thinking I'm somebody crazy when they see this,” Rasin says, offering a glimpse at the tiny casket from the back of her red Ford Aerostar. She likes to tell stories about kids running away when they see the casket. “I do what I have to do,” she says. “I keep it real.”

Also real is Rasin's extensive network of contacts. Rasin easily calls the cell phones of friends in the police department, including Police Chief Bryan Norwood, and families she's helped so they can speak about her work with them. Many pick up and are happy to talk; when messages are left for others — such as Chief Norwood — they're sure to get back, sometimes with prodding from Rasin.

On a recent afternoon, Rasin calls Mayor Dwight Jones' cell phone while she sits perched on a green velvet couch in her living room. When the mayor answers, she passes the phone to a reporter. “Alicia Rasin is one of the jewels of the Richmond city community,” he says. Jones has worked with Rasin ever since he entered public life, although she does not have a formal relationship with his office. (Rasin and Jones have contributed to each other's efforts; Rasin in public support for the mayor — “Dwight's my heart,” she says — and Jones in donations to Rasin and Citizens Against Crime.)

“Her involvement is not based on any paradigm,” the mayor says.


 

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Rasin holds up a photograph of J.J. Poole, the 20-year-old Henrico County resident who was fatally shot in the playground area of the Henrico Arms apartment complex April 22. Rasin holds the hand of Poole's mother, Deneene Poole.

THE VIGIL FOR James Poole takes place on a chill Tuesday evening, on the front lawn of a small brick house with red shutters off Darbytown Road in eastern Henrico County. Gray clouds shed rain against a pale yellow sky in the distance while soft, spiritual music pipes over a makeshift sound system set up on the grass. More than a hundred mourners stream in from surrounding streets; many make their way onto the front lawn while the vigil starts, but some stand back on the street, watching from afar.

On April 22, just a short distance from here, in the playground area of the Henrico Arms apartment complex, Poole, a 20-year-old known to his family and friends as J.J., was shot multiple times in the chest. A photograph of J.J. is propped under a white ribbon in a windowsill of his house; in it he wears a stylish black hat and a shirt in his favorite color, red. He leans toward the camera, his hands clasped as if in prayer.

Nearly everyone at the vigil is crying — from silent tears on the faces of young men and boys to the open sobbing of women. Friends and relatives hug and hold onto each other's shoulders or arms for support. Young children and babies swarm; a little girl stares up into the face of a young boy with tears streaming down his face.

Deneene Poole, J.J.'s mother, stands at the center of the mourners, her expression blank.

“I just want to let y'all know, I can't get my baby back,” she says, her voice choking. Loud sobs emanate from the crowd and a young woman falls to the ground in anguish. It starts to rain.

The calming motions of ceremony hold the mourners together. Charles Willis, executive director of Citizens Against Crime, corrals the group off the street and onto the grass; Rasin and Timothy Kirven, senior pastor of Worship and Praise Deliverance Church, direct prayers; Kirven's wife, Michelle Kirven, leads with a solo of Lionel Richie's “Jesus Is Love.”

On the surface, the motions of prayer vigil are simple, even practical — stand here, say this. On a deeper level, a vigil can let a family say goodbye surrounded by neighbors, a public commemoration to achieve a semblance of community closure.

At J.J.'s vigil, Rasin instructs those holding candles how to protect each flame from being snuffed out from the wind and rain: “One hand over the other hand, and hold it, OK?” Rasin intones in her deep, scratchy voice. “Now we're going to blow the candle out,” she coos, beginning a closing call-and-answer. “And as the smoke goes up into the sky, you've already claimed in the name of Jesus that J.J.'s soul has gone to heaven.”

“And we will say what?” Rasin prompts.

Together, the crowd resounds: “We'll miss you J.J., we'll miss you J.J., we'll miss you J.J. We love you J.J., we love you J.J., we love you J.J.”

 

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At the vigil for J.J. Poole, Rasin comforts a child.

A few weeks later, the pain is still fresh for his mother, who rests on a couch after coming home from her work serving food at the Masonic Home of Virginia. Two young women walk around the house, across the road from the playground where J.J. was killed. One is Monique Coleman, 21, a friend who's been staying at the house since J.J.'s death. He and Monique referred to each other as sister and brother, says J.J.'s mother, Deneene Poole, who has four other sons.

When she talks about her late son, Poole recalls a charismatic young man who loved to dress well and was popular with girls. “He used to change like three, four different times a day,” she says, “different clothes and different hats. … He wanted to look good.”

J.J. didn't graduate from high school, but he dreamed of owning his own business. He also had a penchant for giving things away, such as meals for his friends from his mother's kitchen. When a boy who had just moved down the street needed clothes, J.J. gave away some of his own, packing up three or four outfits and putting them in a bag. He helped one particular child, Poole says, by sneaking him into the house at night when he had nowhere else go. “I didn't know the boy was in here till the next day,” she says.

J.J. wasn't perfect — he got into fights sometimes. “He was a boy too,” his mother says. “He knew everything that he did, might have did, like fornication, dealing with cigarettes, whatever, drinkin', partying. … He knew that was not of God.”

But J.J. had started going back to church recently, she says. He wanted his mother and brothers to pray together more. He liked to tell his family that things were going to be all right — that God had them.

The last time his mother saw him, he was wearing red shoes. She had just returned from a trip to Wal-Mart, during which J.J. had called, asking to borrow $10. When Deneene got home, J.J. waited quietly on the couch next to the kitchen table.

Deneene gave her son the money. “Thank you, mom,” he told her, walking out the door.

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