In Richmond, VA, young men process their grief from neighborhood gun violence
“Anger is unprocessed grief.” When Murray Withrow, SP staff in Richmond, VA, heard this statement, it connected the dots of his ministry in a profound way.
“I don’t think all anger is bad, so I made it my own: ‘Unrighteous anger is unprocessed grief,’” Murray said. “This resonates with me deeply, because I see so many young men that are very angry. Their anger is not processed in healthy ways, so it gets transmitted into violence, rage, substance abuse, taking advantage of women, and more. My heart is broken over how many men are very angry due to unprocessed grief, and what we can do about it.”
Murray’s heart and calling is for men, especially young men. He often describes his calling as “shepherding boys to become men, and men to become better men through the power of the gospel.”
When he moved to Richmond in 2002 for university, he became involved with Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), a local ministry. CHAT serves the youth of Richmond’s East End district with a high school academy, preschool, work training, and more. After he graduated from university, Murray moved into the community and continued to volunteer and eventually work with CHAT.
He founded the Church Hill Academy Phantoms, a high school boys basketball team, which he serves as the athletic director for. This team has expanded as a ministry, school, and is soon to be part of an athletic association in Virginia. Through it, Murray has experienced the joy of building relationships with young men on the team.
In December 2018, the Phantoms played their first basketball game of the season. But before they could play another, their 17-year-old starting point guard Yishawn, or Ya Ya, was tragically shot and killed within 100 yards of his house in public housing.
“I’ll never forget my friend Tim, our head coach, calling me at 11:38 p.m.,” Murray recounted. “My phone rang and woke me up. I answer it, and he said, ‘Ya Ya’s dead.’ He wasn’t involved in anything problematic, but people he was close to were involved—and that was enough.”
A constant beacon of laughter and joy, Ya Ya’s loss was felt by many. Though gun violence is not an anomaly in neighborhoods like Richmond’s East End, the daily experience of it is nothing short of traumatic. And for men growing up in this environment, the transitions of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are fraught with similar hazards.
“There are several intersecting reasons that have pulled me to men’s ministry,” said Murray. “Lauren and I have three boys. I’ve seen young men transition to adulthood well, and others fall by the wayside. I recognize how tricky, tenuous, and dangerous their lives and situations are growing up, especially when the structure of school dissolves after graduation. I know them, I know their potential.”
Having worked with Servant Partners for two and a half years, Murray now functions in a pastoral role in the community, focusing particularly on discipleship and evangelism with men and young men in the community. He’s overseen the development of a men’s ministry network—a group of peers who have a similar heart for young men and men in Richmond.
Murray also leads the young men’s academy with Jerimy, a local leader he’s known and invested in for two years. Every Friday, the young men’s academy meets. They enjoy recreational activities, Bible studies, and meals together.
Recently, another 17-year-old boy, Jayden, was shot and killed in their neighborhood. The incident ripped through the community. Murray and some boys in the young men's academy knew him. During a meeting, Murray and Jerimy knew they needed to process Jayden's death with the boys in the group.
As they discussed death and sin, one boy made a simple association between weapons and murder, sharing, “This guy asked me if I wanted to shoot his gun sometimes, and I said no. And then I cried about it.”
Jerimy responded to the boy, saying, “You know, there’s something to unpack there. Maybe God was working in your heart to steer you in a certain direction, but you didn’t understand that at the time.”
“I was amazed by the kid’s transparency,” Murray said. “That he would just tell it as it is—something that otherwise, is perhaps an embarrassing thing. It was profound.”
In spaces like this, the young men of Richmond’s East End are invited to process their grief with their Heavenly Father. Whether they are conscious or not of what they are experiencing, conversations like this are small steps in processing and defeating difficult lies. Jerimy and Murray both long to see the young men of their neighborhood grow to process grief in healthy ways, and thrive. You can support the ministry here.
Some names were changed to protect privacy.