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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Wounded Healer

Young Urban Leader Models Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence

Damian Black
Photos by Mike Siegel

By Sarah Jio
Photos by Mike Siegel

On January 5, 2008, shots rang out in downtown Seattle. One minute a 13-year-old girl was laughing with her friends at a dance organized by her classmates and their parents in a rented room near Seattle’s Key Arena. The next minute she was clutching her bleeding leg before collapsing to the ground.

Lying beside her was her 15-year-old friend’s lifeless body. He had been shot in the head three times. She watched as he choked and took his last breaths.

A few miles away, asleep at his home in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood, Damian Black heard his phone ringing. “Hello,” the 21-year-old answered groggily. “Son,” said his father. He was crying, and clearly shaken. “Your sister — she’s been shot.”

That night, rushing to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center to see his sister, Black thought about the teens responsible for the shooting. He knew the reality of the streets firsthand: the anger, the bitterness, the violence. As a child growing up in the Rainier Valley, he learned from an early age about revenge as a quick remedy for rage. But that wasn’t the path he’d pursued for his life.

He knew that, like other young people in his situation, he had two choices: retaliation or reconciliation. Damian Black chose the latter.

Damian Black and sister
Black greets his sister at Rainier Beach High School, where he was once a troubled student and is now a respected leader.

The Path of Forgiveness

“When I finally got to my sister in the hospital, she said she didn’t know what she did to deserve it,” says Black. “She was upset and confused. She wanted to know why it happened.”

The truth was, she was just an innocent bystander. She had been caught in gang-fueled crossfire — something that has seemed to plague Seattle’s streets of late with the ricochet of violence and revenge. “I was scared for her,” Black recalls. “I lost a lot of friends growing up. There are always those guys that come to start trouble.”

“Those guys,” he explains, are teens and young adults responsible for countless unsolved murders in the Seattle area. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in 2008 the death of at least nine people and the injury of many more were officially linked to Latino, black, Asian, and white gangs.

But hold your judgment, Black says. He sees the young gang members as more than just criminals. “These are boys trying to make men’s decisions — boys who are sometimes without fathers and homes, boys whose mothers may be on drugs.”

In other words, he says, they are boys in need of the very things that changed his life: forgiveness, a new purpose, and God’s love. That’s why Black says he wants to see the teens who shot his sister on a road to reconciliation with their victims, with their community, and with God.

Eventually word got out that a young man believed to be associated with the shootings was looking for Black. “My wife was kind of scared,” he says. But Black knew the troubled teen, a family friend, and believed that he didn’t pose a danger.

One day, as Black was driving into his apartment complex, the teen approached his car. “Damian,” he said, “I’m so sorry.”

“He pleaded with me for forgiveness,” recalls Black. “He explained that he didn’t shoot anyone, but he was there.”

Black says he looked deep into the boy’s eyes and believed that he was sincere. “I chose to forgive him.”

Black urged the young man to encourage his friends to surrender to the police — which they haven’t done, but Black still hopes they will. While his sister’s wounds have healed, and she’s put the experience behind her as best she can, justice, he says, needs to be served. Plus, if these young men are off the street, they have a better chance of not becoming victims themselves.

“Violence escalates,” says Black. “And at some point you have to ask yourself, ‘When will it stop?’”

It’s the cycle of retaliation and revenge that he believes is poisonous. “I have a lot of friends who have revenge on their hearts,” he says. “But I stand firm on forgiveness. Those kids [the shooters] have an opportunity to change — I believe that without a shadow of a doubt.”

Damian Black
Damian Black joins Seattle youth for “Leadership in Action,” a presentation by SPU’s Perkins Center Director Tali Hairston at Union Gospel Mission’s Youth Outreach Center.

A Changed Life

Years ago, Black had his own opportunity to change. But, he says, not many people believed he would take it — or that he would turn out the way he has: happily married with a 5-month-old daughter, employed as a middle school youth behavior specialist, and a young leader in the urban community.

“If you were to read my life story, it wouldn’t make sense that it turned out like this,” he says.

Once a troubled teen who grew up in an agnostic household with parents who sometimes sold drugs, Black was no stranger to violence. “My uncles would come home from gunfights with bullets in their legs,” he says.

He describes his childhood as a “wild ride.” There were the years he experimented with drugs, the rough company he kept, the fights, and the nights on the streets. Yet in the midst of it all, Black says he was desperately seeking something. “I was always searching for truth,” he says.

For a time, he thought he found that truth in the Muslim faith. But after attending the Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s youth program, Black says Jesus took hold of his heart: “I remember a moment when I was 14, sitting at the end of my bed with a turban on my head, and I cried out to God, ‘Please show me the truth.’”

A week later, at a Young Life youth camp, he met Christian leaders such as Tali Hairston, director of Seattle Pacific University’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. “First my ears opened,” he says, “and then my heart. I knew God sent me there to be changed.”

When he returned from the trip, Black says he opened up his cell phone to retrieve text messages from friends. When he read some of the profanity-laden messages he’d written the week prior, he was shocked. “I didn’t even recognize myself,” he says. “I had this passion for God that was unreal. I had been transformed, and I wanted to share it with everyone.”

That meant returning to Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School to confront his past. “I pulled myself out of that old lifestyle,” he says. “I started getting people to go to Bible study, helping them see that it can be cool to love God.”

Hairston says he remembers seeing Black at Union Gospel Mission Bible studies, and he still recalls the early fire in the youngster’s eyes: “He had all this street know- ledge and, with that, he realized that his pain could shape his purpose.”

Leading by Example

How can we end the violence, and how can we begin the healing and reconciliation? Those are the questions Black, Hairston, and other leaders of all ages and positions in the community asked as they met weekly following the Key Arena shooting. They continue to push for answers as they work together on youth violence and other issues facing the urban community of Seattle.

John Reid, the high school coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, is one such leader who is joining the fight for change. Reid, who has mentored Black for several years, says that youth violence in Seattle is on the rise. “There was a time when violence decreased greatly, but it’s up again,” he says.

And when people ask why, Reid has an answer: “This is a result of the absence of mentors,” he says. “Kids are dying, and we have to find solutions. We’re coming together — local church leaders, people from various organizations, and young leaders like Damian — to figure this out.”

Black is happy to participate. He says he believes in the importance of raising up young leaders like himself — youth who have learned that they can act as role models, living out reconciliation, and playing vital roles in rebuilding their communities. He points to SPU’s Urban Youth Leadership Academy as a building block in that process.

The program, an initiative of SPU’s Perkins Center, helps inner-city students ages 15–21 develop leadership skills, engage their community, and prepare for higher education. “This program helps shape and train new leaders, and that’s what the urban community so desperately needs right now,” explains Black.

He says that one way he’s been able to communicate his own story of faith and forgiveness has been through music. But after a music critic labeled one of the budding artist’s early recordings as “gangster rap,” Black says he did some soul-searching.

“I had to wrestle with God,” he says. “And I learned that I can’t come to people covered in darkness and expect them to see my light. I started over and completely changed my style. Now I’m talking to the people as one of the people, as someone who overcame that lifestyle. And I’m challenging my peers to do the same.”

So when he sees troubled teens — the ones he knows from his neighborhood, the ones on the streets, the ones in gangs, the ones with guns in their pockets and revenge on their hearts — he knows that hope is not lost. His own life is testament to that.

Wounded, but Healing Others

“God pulled me out of nowhere,” says Black. And when he did, he instilled in him a newfound appreciation for the transforming power of forgiveness. “We stand as believers, and we cry out to God for forgiveness. But how can we ask God for forgiveness when we can’t forgive anyone else?”

That’s the message Black recently brought to a hospitalized friend who was injured in a gang shooting at Seattle’s Southcenter Mall. “He was definitely in retaliation mode,” recalls Black. But he helped his friend get past the “Why me?” and on to bigger questions.

“What finally got him to forgive was realizing that if he were to die, where would he have gone?” explains Black.

Hairston says it all boils down to redemption — redemption from sin, from pain, from a life of violence. “God can redeem us,” he says. “He’s a redeeming God. That’s what we talk about a lot in our Leadership Academy, how pain can reveal so much about our purpose in the world. When kids are bitter about their families, instead of becoming abusers themselves, they can become wounded healers.

“In order for Damian to have a future, he had to reconcile with his past,” continues Hairston. “And he’s done that. If he could deal with that, he can accomplish anything.”

When Black reads about another gunfight in the paper, or hears about another death on the streets of his childhood, he says he grieves, and then he regroups. “We’re not in this fight alone,” he says. “We have to stand firm and fight against what is making these kids this way. Because there’s nothing that God can’t do.”

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