News & Features » Cover Story

Preaching for Peace

As gun violence plagues the city, the Rev. Donte McCutchen seeks solutions.

By

The room is cherry red and the Rev. Donte McCutchen is on fire.

Love Cathedral congregants are dressed in all white, hands held high, heads nodding vigorously, lips moving imperceptibly.

We’re on the cusp of some great cathartic awakening and McCutchen must contain his own excitement as well as the burgeoning fervor of the crowd.

“We’re going to shout in a second, trust me,” he urges.

It’s Pentecost Sunday – aka the birthday of the church – the celebration 50 days after Easter commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in Jerusalem.

“There was a sound that hit the house and filled the room,” calls McCutchen, and the congregants respond in kind. “Our local community and world are under great attack.”

He asks for prayers for Palestine, for families who have lost loved ones.

“There are too many widows, too many children who have lost their parents to violence, and children who have lost their lives as well.”

Love Cathedral congregants wear all white to celebrate Pentecost on Sunday, May 23. The Rev. Donte McCutchen shares the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the twelve disciples in Jerusalem: “Pentecost happens every time change takes place and we unify,” he says. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Love Cathedral congregants wear all white to celebrate Pentecost on Sunday, May 23. The Rev. Donte McCutchen shares the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the twelve disciples in Jerusalem: “Pentecost happens every time change takes place and we unify,” he says.  

McCutchen knows this all too well.

Nearly a month earlier, on Tuesday, April 27, a shooting at the Belt Atlantic Apartments claimed the lives of his 30-year-old cousin, Sharnez Hill, and her infant daughter, Neziah. The killings took place about a mile from McCutchen’s Love Cathedral.

“The politics of the oppressor are killing us every day. Anyone else tired?” asks McCutchen wearily, but with a deep sense of urgency.

“I’m fed up and I will shout it from the mountaintop!”

A public health crisis

During a news conference May 13, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney declared gun violence in the city a public health crisis: “It is incumbent upon me and everyone gathered here today to not just acknowledge this crisis, but name it as something we can solve.”

This declaration comes in the wake of three deadly years.

Gun violence rose by 32% in 2019 compared to 2018 while August 2020 was the deadliest month in Richmond – with 12 homicides – since September 2017.

Last week, a Virginia State Police report noted that in 2020, Richmond had 66 homicides, up 16% from 2019, or 29 killings per 100,000 residents. By April 2021, there were a recorded 16 homicides in the city, on par with April 2020. According to the Virginia Department of Health, Richmond is the top locality in the state with the largest number of gun-related homicides, averaging 48.6 per year between 2013 and 2017.

“I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of violence,” says McCutchen, a lifelong Richmond resident. “[Yet] even with gun violence, I also learned how to love my fellow brother and sister in the midst of all that.”

During an anti-gun violence rally on May 1, McCutchen speaks in front of the Henrico and Richmond police chiefs at George Wythe High School. The Men in Action rally was in response to the killings at the Belt Atlantic Apartments that claimed the lives of Sharnez Hill and her 3-month-old daughter, Neziah. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • During an anti-gun violence rally on May 1, McCutchen speaks in front of the Henrico and Richmond police chiefs at George Wythe High School. The Men in Action rally was in response to the killings at the Belt Atlantic Apartments that claimed the lives of Sharnez Hill and her 3-month-old daughter, Neziah.

McCutchen grew up in Gilpin Court. He still lives in Jackson Ward today. As a pastor, he is fully embedded in the community. That means he must reckon daily with his overwhelming love of the city as well as the knowledge that the people he cares for are constantly in danger, on the cusp of hunger or homelessness or falling victim to violence.

“I believe if we learn how to put a name to a thing, we can deal with a thing,” he says. Yes, he’s happy to see the city declaring gun violence a public health crisis, he says. But he needs to know – what comes next?

“We were asking for programs before my baby cousin was killed,” he says.

One can understand his skepticism. A year before the tragic death of Sharnez and her infant child, another of McCutchen’s relatives was killed, a 16-year-old Black male, and the city did not announce a public health crisis then. Nor did it announce a public health crisis when six Richmonders were killed over a period of six days this April. Among the dead were a 15-, 17- and 20-year-old.

Only two days after Stoney’s declaration, the sound of gunfire still rang out, unimpeded by formal announcements and news conferences. On Saturday, May 15, 26-year-old Scott Johnson II was shot and killed while visiting a friend at an apartment building on Williamsburg Road.

McCutchen clearly worries about a level of desensitization.

“We tell people to rise above the noise and pray above the noise,” McCutchen says. “But we have to be careful that we don’t dismiss the noise, as well as ignore the sound.”

Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch has heard the sounds of the city loud and clear. In early May, Richmond City Council announced that it was planning to allocate $500,000 of the city’s 2021-22 budget toward a gun-violence-prevention program.

“The idea is to really empower the community to develop their own responses tailored to their needs,” she says. With a master’s degree in social work administration and policy practice, Lynch is well-equipped to tackle a nuanced prevention program. She says that $133,000 of the budget will go toward staffing a board that will help with the allocation of funds, while the remaining $367,000 will go to micro grants.

Grants will be based strictly on what each specific community needs and requests. For example, grants could include creating a $30,000 emergency relief fund for an apartment complex for residents who sometimes fall a couple hundred dollars behind on rent.

“It’s essentially a formalized coordination of various different groups, from faith leaders to the Jackson Ward Peace Team, that are already around,” Lynch says, “This will enable some formal collaboration so there is a little more coordination about who is doing what and where.”

Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch is currently designing a gun violence prevention program with a $500,000 budget. She is shown at a rally to remove the Confederate monuments in 2020. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Fifth District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch is currently designing a gun violence prevention program with a $500,000 budget. She is shown at a rally to remove the Confederate monuments in 2020.

The root of the problem

“Once a case gets to the courtroom, the tragedy has already occurred,” says Tom Barbour, a private defense lawyer and former Richmond prosecutor.

Barbour recently ran as a progressive challenger in the Democratic primary for commonwealth’s attorney but conceded to incumbent Colette McEachin on Election Day.

Although he was unable to bring his progressive policies to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Barbour has been and continues to be a fervent proponent of a social-services-driven gun violence prevention model. He’s the founder of the nonprofit Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, which connects people in the system to the services they need to move out of it.

“Police and prosecutors can do much to manage short-term violent risk, but by the time there is a criminal case there has already been a shooting, there’s already been a loss of life,” Barbour says. “As commonwealth attorney, if you are interested in public safety you have to take a long-term view and try to organize resources and community to get out ahead of that next shooting.”

Tom Barbour, a defense attorney and founder of the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, hopes Richmond can draw from successful gun violence prevention models used in other cities like Advance Peace in Richmond, California. - ASH DANIEL/FILE
  • Ash Daniel/File
  • Tom Barbour, a defense attorney and founder of the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, hopes Richmond can draw from successful gun violence prevention models used in other cities like Advance Peace in Richmond, California.  

On Tuesday, May 25, Barbour moderated a town hall about gun violence intervention with guest speakers that included McCutchen as well as Devone Boggan, founder and chief executive of Advance Peace, and Art Burton, the prolific local community activist and executive director of Kinfolk Community.

“Gun violence is not random,” Barbour said during the panel. “In a broader sense, there are major contributing factors, from the hyping of conflict online before it spills into the street to the ongoing trauma of the community.”

Burton, a well-known social activist who has rallied for the underserved communities of Richmond for decades, discussed the need for context when it comes to understanding the continued prevalence of gun violence in the city.

“Because it is generational, you have to change the culture of the community,” he said. “The small percentage of young men who engage in violence are following examples of uncles and fathers and brothers. While a group of young teens killing a baby is a tragedy, this is the result of the mass incarceration of Black men which has resulted in the fact that there are no 40- or even 30-year-old Black men to serve as leaders.”

Longtime Richmond activist Art Burton has weighed in on the issue of gun violence in the city, urging that the problem is generational and solutions require a community-based response. He is pictured at a 2015 RVA Stop the Violence rally in Mosby Court. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Longtime Richmond activist Art Burton has weighed in on the issue of gun violence in the city, urging that the problem is generational and solutions require a community-based response. He is pictured at a 2015 RVA Stop the Violence rally in Mosby Court.

With his Advance Peace model, Boggan aims to alter the “lack of leaders” narrative. Boggan lives in another Richmond in Northern California, a city that once ranked among the top 12 most dangerous in the country. A former neighborhood safety director, he founded Advance Peace in an attempt to ameliorate the gun violence plaguing that city.

Boggan’s focus is on improving the health and wellbeing of those most affected by gun violence, including the offenders. It’s a model that has proven successful on the West Coast – since the 2007 inception of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, there has been a 65% decrease in homicides in Richmond, California In 2019, 16 firearm incidents were prevented, saving that city a minimum of $5.8 million from gun violence interruptions.

As he explained his findings to the panel, Boggan argued for tapping into the “human assets and resources that can deliver legitimate authority.”

“That means finding people who can influence these individuals,” he explained. “Which can include tapping into formerly incarcerated individuals with gun charges who have already begun to do work on themselves to improve and transform their own lives.”

In 2008, the California city became the first in the country to hire formerly incarcerated people with gun charges in their background.

“There was a lot of pushback,” Boggan said. “But we brought in four neighborhood change agents in February 2008 and three of the four remain in the city office. One even took over my job as neighborhood safety officer of development.”

It’s a model that Barbour, McCutchen and Burton hope can be implemented, in some capacity, in our Richmond.

Finding H.E.L.P.

As a community leader and natural connector of people, McCutchen has experience in building initiatives from the ground up.

He was a central force in the development of the H.E.L.P. – Healing, Educating, and Loving People – community advisory board in 2011, a program born out of a yearlong fellowship that Juan Pierce participated in through the Black AIDS Institute.

“I hope people will embrace the skill set Donte has and his relationship with the community and ongoing involvement,” says Pierce, executive director of the Minority Health Consortium.

In 2010, Pierce and Adyam Redae, a consortium volunteer and Virginia Commonwealth University student, flew to Los Angeles to learn how to collect raw data from a community to better understand and address its residents’ underlying needs.

“They said that in order to solve a community’s problems, no matter the problem, the best people who can solve it are the people who live in the community,” Pierce recalls.

At the time, Richmond was seeing an increase in HIV infection among young people of color. Pierce says when he would attend planning meetings and public hearings, “everyone was planning something for them, but them.”

As part of the fellowship program, Pierce and Redae collected data about the city’s demographics including poverty levels and education systems as well as data about where HIV and sexually transmitted disease infections were highest.

They assessed the city’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, mapping out community services and determining where there were gaps in accessibility: “Is this agency LGBTQ+ friendly? Is this agency open after hours?”

Pierce says they identified McCutchen as “a popular opinion leader, a gatekeeper, someone who people can go to.”

McCutchen became the chairman of the H.E.L.P. advisory board. A minister in all things, he named the board of 33 community members – not professors, out-of-town consultants or well-paid experts. These were members of the community who looked like the people they were testing at the H.E.L.P drop-in center at 208 E. Clay St., suite B.

“Oftentimes when you look at trying to end the pandemic of HIV and decrease STD rates, when you go to hospitals sometimes the person who tests you may look like you,” Pierce explains. “But as you go up the food chain, the case manager may not look like you, the provider may not look like you. We learned that if we can increase the literacy among the people who live in the community, then they sort of become the community health workers and representatives and are known and trusted among their peers.”

Over the years, H.E.L.P. has grown organically. While the focus remains on HIV and sexually transmitted disease testing, the center has become much more than that. Pierce says that H.E.L.P. connects those who come in for testing with other services they may need – “something put that person at risk to take the test in the first place” – whether that’s mental health counseling or referring victims of domestic violence to a partner agency.

“I believe groups like this are where we need to put our money,” says McCutchen as he recalls his days as chairman. “And not just because I was part of it, but because it’s a group of concerned citizens who now, years later, are running clinics in the city.”

McCutchen invites his congregants to come up and feel the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • McCutchen invites his congregants to come up and feel the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday.  

Cathedral of love

On a blindingly sunny Thursday afternoon in May, McCutchen meets with a Style Weekly reporter beneath the Reconciliation statue in Shockoe Bottom.

Flanked by a parking garage and noisy overpass, the diminutive grassy patch at 15th and East Main streets dedicated to the 15-foot statue feels too small, too cramped. Traffic is deafening. But for McCutchen, “This, this right here is church.”

McCutchen grew up going to Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Jackson Ward, known as “the Cathedral in the Community.” The Rev. Kenneth E. Dennis Sr. led the church for three decades before passing away in February.

“He was my example,” McCutchen says. “He taught me and taught our church how to care for people.”

Throughout his life, McCutchen has witnessed why people are angry and scared and traumatized – he feels it in his bones. He’s seen the insidious inception of the next shooting, which happens, as Barbour explained, long before a trigger is pulled.

McCutchen stands in the doorway of his Hull Street church; a mere mile away the Belt Atlantic Apartment shootings took place in late April, claiming the lives of two of McCutchen’s relatives. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • McCutchen stands in the doorway of his Hull Street church; a mere mile away the Belt Atlantic Apartment shootings took place in late April, claiming the lives of two of McCutchen’s relatives. 

“People need to take their anger out and in order to win, they do the thing. The only thing to secure the win, to use this gun,” he says. “Violence is at an all-time high. One of the reasons is a language barrier. We just don’t know what the other is trying to say. I hear you, but I don’t hear you.”

Now a holistic service navigator at Richmond nonprofit Nia Community Development Corp., McCutchen has long worked in the field of public health. He pastors at his church every Sunday and beyond its four, bright red walls.

Cars roar by and we shout to hear. McCutchen, like any good pastor, draws from the landscape around him.

“In the midst of the noise, what is the real sound? What is the real cry?” he asks.

“I believe our city is surrounded with noise, but no one is making a sound.”