SPECIAL UPDATE: How Your Giving Has Blessed SE DC

Nicole D. Hayes, Founder, Voices Against the Grain

“He loved playing football. He was a leader. He was focused. He was determined to get out of the hood.” 

These words spoken by Crystal McNeal, give some insight into the character, direction and plans regarding her son Davon Thomas McNeal, 11, who was shot and killed in the District of Columbia on July 4, 2020. Davon was one of seven people killed in the District within the first four days of this July, according to this July 5th Washington Post article. Crystal, who works as a violence interrupter in the city to help mediate disputes between criminals and beefing groups to urge them to put down their weapons, was hosting a July 4th cookout in the Southeast D.C. neighborhood of Cedar Gardens in Anacostia–an event that was geared to restore peace and trust in the violent neighborhood–when shots fired struck her son Davon in the head. He was retrieving earbuds and a cellphone charger from his aunt’s car when he was shot. By August, at least four men had been charged in Davon’s murder. The four men had also attended the neighborhood cookout that Crystal hosted with the intention of restoring peace in the violent community–only to have her son killed there.

“He was always smiling,” says his mom Crystal. 

Davon liked to play football with the Metro Bengals, an organization that provides youth cheer and football programs in the District. He had made 28 touchdowns. He also loved the colors orange, black and white.

Davon was a sixth-grader at Kramer Middle School–a school and community that has long been on my heart and in my prayers joined by our ministry partners. In 2017 thru 2018, I along with a dear sister in Christ, Barbara Crymes West of Washington State whom I met during grad school, began developing a faith-based leadership development curriculum to help students–particularly those living in high-poverty and high-crime communities–to navigate present and future challenges through biblical principles. The curriculum components are also designed to equip students to lead others in their environments to prepare for future education and career opportunities. Along with the curriculum, we wanted to provide lunches for the students, field trips, supplies and equipment–of which 15 donors gifted us $925 (with a fundraising goal of $2,500) toward those costs via a Facebook fundraiser conducted in November 2018. With a greenlight received from the school’s principal at the time, Roman Smith, and Site Coordinator Cliffone Ault, we prepared to launch the curriculum in February 2019. However, a change in school leadership and a few other events placed the curriculum launch with Kramer Middle School on hold, if not permanently.

We are grateful for everyone who donated and supported this work whether financially, or through guidance and review during the curriculum’s development. None of that is wasted. We are still setting funds aside, praying and desiring to launch the curriculum as the Lord wills in 2022 or after, knowing that the needs still exist, although it may be with a different school or community. Nonetheless, our hearts remain with Kramer Middle School and the community as we supported their food bank in 2019 and the Lord also positioned us to serve the community in a unique way this year, even through the devastation of a young life cut short by violence. 

Since learning about Davon’s murder on July 4th, he and his family have been very much on my heart. I have been praying to know how to help them. Given what has been a busy few months with other ministry work, in the quiet few days leading up to this Christmas, I had opportunity to research articles to reach Davon’s paternal grandfather, John Ayala, who would connect me to Crystal. John explained that in early August of this year, the Davon Thomas McNeal, LLC was launched to help clothe and feed the District’s homeless population. Crystal, along with her 10-year-old son, 18-year-old daughter, 20-year-old son, other family, friends and volunteers, have been helping to clothe and feed 256 men and boys staying at the 801 East Men’s Shelter (part of St. Elizabeths East), at 2700 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE. The food and beverages are prepared by volunteers and clothes donated. I was amazed and also pleased to learn how the family is serving those in need in Davon’s honor while still grieving his death in what has been less than six months’ time. Speaking with Barb and another dear sister in Christ, I asked them if it would be okay to give the $925 raised to support the McNeal family in their efforts and they were in agreement. I told John our intentions of donating $1,000 to Crystal to support their work of clothing and feeding the homeless–particularly when many are so hard-hit by this pandemic–loss of income, food, shelter, etc. Before giving the check, I told John that I wanted to meet Crystal. 

“Everyone deserves a chance to make it.”– Davon McNeal 

I had opportunity to speak with and meet Davon’s mom Crystal on Saturday, December 26, 2020. I am grateful to have met her and others serving the men at the East Men’s Shelter. The day was bitterly cold as men lined up to receive shoes, warm, thick socks, clothes, and a hot meal. A blessing to pour into this community in Davon’s honor. Those items were unloaded from Davon’s tribute van provided by Philadelphia Steelers football player, Anthony McFarland. McFarland was raised in Prince George’s County. When he learned of Davon’s murder, he reached out to the Metro Bengals to see how he could help. I saw the van and it is wonderfully designed with photos of Davon and with scripture from Deuteronomy 31:6 (“So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.”- New Living Translation). The van also includes Davon’s tagline “Everyone Deserves a Chance to Make It” as words taken from a Frederick Douglass speech he recited in English class, encouraging hopeful futures beyond the hood. 

The Davon Thomas McNeal Tribute Van

Men from 801 East Men’s shelter grateful to receive warm clothes and shoes.

In the photos posted below, is the card and gift of $1,020 presented to Crystal McNeal along with the names of each of our donors (a donor provided $20 cash day-of along with our $1,000 check, so a total of $1,020 was given to Crystal along with the purchase of men’s socks). Our donors were: Andy from Kansas, Barbara from Washington State, Becky from Minnesota, Cheryl from Washington, DC, Cindy from Minnesota, Dee from Florida, Felicia from Maryland, Gregory from Maryland, Jaime from Virginia, Jason from Pennsylvania, Julie from Kansas, Justus and Rachel from Minnesota, Makeba from Florida, Mary from Washington, DC, Nicole from Washington, DC and Sonia from Maryland.

Such a blessing. Thank you for being a part! A blessing to be aligned with what God is doing right now.

Crystal, her family and the community plan to host a parade at Kramer Middle School in Davon’s honor on Saturday, January 9, 2021 on what would have been his 12th birthday. I plan to attend.

God bless you. Continue to pray for God’s supernatural peace to heal the McNeal Family and SE DC.

Nicole

Nicole presents Crystal McNeal with group card and gift of $1,020 to help support the family’s efforts of clothing and feeding those in need in Davon’s honor. Davon was also a sixth grader at Kramer Middle School in SE DC.

Group card with donor names and states represented given to Crystal McNeal on December 26, 2020 at 801 East Men’s Shelter.

 

Check for $1,000 presented from group to Crystal McNeal to support work of The Davon Thomas McNeal, LLC.

We’ve Come This Far By Faith

Nicole Headshot in blue shirt

Nicole D. Hayes, Founder, Voices Against the Grain

“If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.” –Elizabeth Freeman “Mum Bett,” a Massachusetts slave who sued for her freedom and helped end slavery in that state, 1800

Sobering words. You can feel this former slave’s yearning to experience freedom, even if only for 60 seconds before being killed. Through her words, you feel her disregard for death in exchange for one minute’s freedom to escape the life she had been enslaved.

Though I saw her quote earlier this week during my five-hour tour of the newly opened National African American Museum of History and Culture here in Washington, D.C., her palpable words have stayed with me. In the course of my tour of the intelligently designed crown/corona-shaped museum and its four levels and basement levels, dare I say that there are many words and images that have stayed with me.

elizabeth-freeman-quote

A project 100 years in the making, the National African American Museum of History and Culture, a Smithsonian property, was built on the last available space on the National Mall grounds. Its history memorializes in artifact, imagery, film, music, written and audio messages the good, bad and ugly of America’s history in its treatment of Blacks.

I joyfully made my way through and down the top levels whose exhibits fabulously celebrate some of African Americans’ crowning achievements from opening businesses and restaurants, to the music many of us sing and dance to, sports records set and the creation of popular Black-owned magazines and newspapers telling stories from perspectives that wouldn’t have been told otherwise. I felt proud.

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The infamous gold track shoes of four-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and World Champion sprinter, Michael Johnson

The museum staff first recommended that visitors start at the basement level which contains exhibits of slavery (and Emmett Till’s casket), and then work our way up. This was purposely designed to lift us out of the earlier sorrow. But, as life would have it, there was a long line to the basement level so it was recommended that we start our tour at the top levels.

museum

By the time I reached the basement levels, I understood why the reverse order was preferred. Upon entering the basement level exhibits that embarked on Africans’ journey of slavery into the Americas and Europe, starting around year 1400, my jubilation sunk into anger and sorrow.

Beatings. Brutality. Men, women and children in shackles. Packed in large cargo ships with less than 2 feet of space between the next person. Forced to lie in their excrement. Some were healthy enough to survive the Transatlantic journey and some were not. Those that survived the journey, not all survived the overbearing field work. Rice crops, sugar trade, tobacco fields and other goods established the wealthy and many companies still operating in America today—built on the blood, sweat, brutality, tears and cries of despair from the millions upon millions of enslaved Africans.

In reading some of the slaves’ stories and viewing the clothes and shackles passed down to their family for me as a free person to see today, I asked, “God, where were you in their brutality? Where were you in their beatings, struggles and oppression? Children separated from their parents? Enslaved men and women who loved each other not allowed by law to marry. Treated as property, while the wicked were held in high esteem.  Lord, where were you??!”

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Slave shackles, property of 3rd U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson.

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In my anger, I came upon a display that brought a wellspring of joy within my spirit.

Encased in glass was Nat Turner’s open bible and Harriet Tubman’s book of gospel hymns. Both Turner and Tubman were instrumental in bravely leading other slaves to freedom. The description beneath Tubman’s hymnal reads:

“A fiercely religious woman, Tubman spoke of visions and dreams that helped provide a moral compass throughout her life. The wear and tear on this hymnal suggests that she must have loved it and used it quite frequently.”

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Harriet Tubman’s Hymnal

Wow. More than wow. Seeing Tubman’s hymnal and Turner’s bible stirred my spirit to recognize: Lord, You were with them! Just as You were faithfully with Moses as he led the Israelites out of Egypt after suffering 400 years of slavery, YOU were with those who led, bled and suffered! You are the same God then as you are today. For all Believers, You are with us today, in our struggles! You tell us to go in courage (Joshua 1:9) for you go with us! If we trust You and Your Word, You will bring us out and into freedom! Exodus! For those who trust, that means spiritual freedom in Christ Jesus. For some of you, it also means leaving the land of not enough (Egypt) to the land of more than enough (Canaan).

I could write more on my experience but truly this is a powerful takeaway for me. God is indeed with us in our struggles even when it doesn’t feel like it at times. God knows our struggles, suffering and sorrows, for He sent His only Son to be beaten, whipped, nailed to a wooden cross to die as an innocent to take on the wickedness of this world so mankind could be redeemed and reconciled in relationship with God. Christ died so that you and I could truly be free.

Presently, the Black community is still under siege. There is a present-day slavery of a different sort strategized by Satan that has kept many in perpetual slavery to poverty, addiction, incarceration and violence. It’s my prayer at least for the population God has entrusted me to serve and share His Truth, to help them recognize true freedom in Christ Jesus and unshackle them from the things that enslave and entangle  (Hebrews 12:1). “To proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,” (Isaiah 61:1, NIV).

I, like many DC-area residents, get caught up in the busyness of Washington life. Sometimes we take for granted the national treasures easily accessible to us; treasures that thousands travel from far away to simply get a glimpse of; to somehow capture the experience permanently by photo, video or gift shop trinket.

But I promise you, I won’t take for granted what I saw and experienced. In ways I will never know personally, the struggles of my predecessors and more importantly, their legacy of faith and resiliency, has in part enabled me to be where I am today: free.  I think on words from the hymn, “We’ve Come this Far By Faith”:

Oh, We’ve come this far by faith

Leaning on the Lord

Trusting in His holy word

He’s never failed me yet

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh

Can’t turn around

We’ve come this far by faith

 

-Nicole

Nicole D. Hayes is the founder of Voices Against the Grain, a bold teaching ministry launched in May 2013. Nicole’s purpose in creating Voices Against the Grain is to be light in darkness, to boldly instruct truth amid confusion so as to bring clarity and restoration.

Learn more about Nicole D. Hayes here.