At first look, one might not think the two bereavement groups that met separately at Dolores Mission in East LA had anything in common. One group was made up of the family members of murdered individuals – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews. The other, the families of mostly young men incarcerated, often for life, for violent crimes.
They attended mass each week separately as well, explains Javier Stauring, who oversaw both support groups as part of his work with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Then a mother who was dealing with the murder of her son, suggested the two groups join together for that weekly mass. The group members agreed, and as they began attending services together they also opened the door to a new kind of approach to healing.
It was the beginning of a new idea for Stauring, who left the Diocese in 2015 and started his own program, Healing Dialogue and Action. Now these two seemingly dissimilar groups come together regularly, supporting one another through unimaginable pain and grief. “The suffering is very similar between these two groups,” Stauring notes. “They all have misconceptions of who the other side is, what they’re thinking, what they’re going through.”
To illustrate, he remembers the mother of a young man who’d committed murder and went to prison. “She didn’t feel like she deserved to cry” when faced with mothers whose sons had been killed, he explains. But one of the other mothers embraced her, telling her she had every right to her own painful feelings. “These families experience so much shame, and to be able to be accepted and by someone who represents where her shame comes from…is profound and powerful.” The mutual support and understanding that develops through the process, Stauring believes, can help people in their healing process and break the cycle of retribution and violence.
As the program continues to grow, Stauring credits fiscal sponsorship with offering more freedom to focus on the work at hand. “Oh my god,” he says, “coming to Community Partners enabled us to do what we’re good at…and not worry about so many administrative responsibilities.”
In addition to bringing people together through the facilitated support groups, Healing Dialogue and Action also advocates and works toward systemic change. They worked for seven years to pass SB 9, which gives a second chance to people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime and sentenced to life without parole. Symposiums held inside prisons offer a chance for legislators, district attorneys, and prison administrators to hear stories from families of both victims and perpetrators, and to then discuss a specific reform issue.
With eight families of young men killed at the hands of police currently working together in a group in East LA, Stauring is also helping them advocate for the release of police records that until a recent law was passed, were never made public. “Families just want to know what happened…even if they understand that their child was most likely culpable; having no idea about what took place prevents them from healing, from moving on.”
It’s difficult, painful work, but Stauring is deeply passionate about it. “It is a privilege to witness and walk beside these people,” he says.
Keep an eye out over the next month for a CNN-produced series with Don Lemon about restorative justice that will include Javier Stauring and the work of Healing Dialogue and Justice.
Pictured above: Juana and Bertha, two mothers connected by homicide, have found healing together