In the months before his death, Bilal Russell worked with emotionally disturbed kids at Black Family and Child Services of Arizona, a non-profit social services agency in Phoenix. He loved the work, visiting foster kids who had a history of physical and emotional abuse, or neglect. In fact, he and a friend hoped to make it a ministry of sorts. By the time he would have graduated from Howard University Law School, to which he had been accepted this fall, they planned to submit a proposal to the state for a contract to create a foster home for emotionally disturbed kids.
I can guess what the children thought of Bilal. A former starting forward on Howard University’s men’s basketball team, he must have struck them as a sweet, soft-spoken, gentle guy — the one who could teach them old-school hip-hop songs, like LL Cool J’s "I Need Love."
In thinking about the events that led up to my friend’s death, I was reminded of the disappearance long ago of a girl from my hometown of Walnut Creek, California. Lisa Dickinson was last seen on a bike wearing blue shorts, white sandals, and a yellow Snoopy t-shirt with the word "Happiness" at the bottom. Her parents had planned a trip on the subway the following week, so after dinner, she scoped out the route they would take. She hopped on her bike, stopped for traffic along Ygnacio Valley Road, and rode through the vast Heather Farms Park, making a shortcut to the Pleasant Hill BART station. It was the last time she was seen alive.
Bilal Russell and Lisa Dickinson shared little in common. He was an African American who’d spent his entire life in cities; she was a young white girl from the suburbs. But they each met a tragic and senseless end.
Bilal’s came around 10 p.m. on Thursday, January 15. He was sitting in his new apartment in Phoenix when there came a knock on the door. Getting up to answer it, two or more men burst through the door. He ran for his life and jumped through a bedroom window. He might have escaped, but he was shot multiple times in the back on the way out. His father said the intruders just "shot him down like a dog."
In the Bible, God tells the fratricidal Cain that his brother’s blood cries out from the ground. Yet it is not just the blood of victims that cries out; so too do their loved ones. In 1997, the Atlantic Monthly published a two-part series about the families of homicide victims, the first installment titled "A Grief Like No Other." In the words of author Eric Schlosser, the emotional and psychological distress suffered by the relatives of murder victims in many ways resembles that of rape victims, combat veterans, and prisoners who have been tortured.
So great is the grief that relatives can lose not only their faith in society, the legal system, and old friends, but also their faith in God. This scenario will be familiar to anyone who has read Catholic writer Andre Dubus’s Killings or the 2001 Hollywood version, In the Bedroom. Although the families of victims don’t typically enact revenge on the alleged murderer (as in the film) the response is frequently severe. Most suffer bouts of uncontrollable crying or turn to drugs or alcohol. Many married couples divorce. Some family members commit suicide.
The theological term for this is despair. The Catechism defines it: "Man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins," adding that "despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice — for the Lord is faithful to his promises — and to his mercy."
That the relatives of murder victims succumb often to despair is understandable. Both Bilal and Lisa were two people who embodied humanity at its best. Bilal was compassionate, smart, gentle, courageous; Lisa was innocent, sweet, adventurous. Why shouldn’t their relatives, like Job, be furious at the Lord and indulge the view that He is a fraud?
This is of course the question that the devil wants us to ask. He steals our joy and then leads us to blame God. Overcoming despair is not easy, but it is possible. The way surely lies in a mature theological love: a recognition that this life is a vale of tears and that the next one truly matters, and that the living can carry on the work of the beloved dead. Death is not the end; it merely begins a new relationship.
That’s how Bilal’s father is dealing with it. Days after his son’s murder, Mr. Russell told an Arizona Republic reporter, "We’re not going to let that little bullet stop what Bilal started." His son’s spirit would survive, he added, in a new home for emotionally disturbed kids that he and his family were building at the apartment where Bilal was killed.