Lateef Johnson-Kinsey’s phone rang Aug. 12. He saw his son’s mother’s name pop up on his screen but assumed he could call her back.
Then she immediately rang him again. Lateef picked up.
He remembers her screams and being unable to parse out what she was saying. Lateef tried to steady her so he could understand.
That’s when she told him: His 18-year-old son had been shot in Philadelphia.
Lateef has learned the rhythm of gun violence over the last year: Where someone has been shot is important. How nurses and doctors talk to you can tip what information might come next.
His son’s mother called him from outside the hospital and told him how little she knew.
“Outside is good,” Lateef remembered saying. “When they bring you inside, we got a problem. That’s when you go in a room and they’re gonna tell you some stuff.”
Since early 2022, Lateef has been tasked with fighting gun violence in Syracuse. Mayor Ben Walsh appointed Lateef to bring together organizations that steer teens and young adults away from gun and gang violence. Earlier this month, the problem came home.
His son was shot twice in the legs but is expected to recover. Central Current is not naming his son for his safety.
Lateef now faces the same challenge the families of the 1,420 people shot in Syracuse over the last 10 1/2 years face. He has to help his son navigate the same cynical world built around bullet wounds.
Those bullets fired in Philadelphia will affect Syracuse’s gun violence efforts. Lateef has vowed his experience will inform his work. His son’s shooting brought out a flaw in how Syracuse approaches gun violence. Unlike his son, so many have to return to the same block where they were shot.
Lateef drove his son to respite four hours away, where he had mentors who unconditionally cared about him.
He’s already talked to Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens about finding respite space for victims of gun violence, Lateef said. Timothy Jennings-Bey, a community advocate more widely known as Noble, said he and Lateef have talked every other day about making respite space a reality.
“What I realized is these kids that are being shot, we’re always saying fatal. But how about the nonfatal, 18-, 19-year-old that doesn’t have a dad that lives in a nice neighborhood four hours away?” Lateef said. “Now they have to go back to that neighborhood. Back to the same house. My son was shot two, three blocks from where his grandmother lives. He can’t go back there.
“All he wanted to do was go back to his room. Can’t go back.”
‘I know my son will be all right’
Despite the pain the shooting has caused Lateef and his family, he counts himself and his son as blessed.
His son’s fortune is underscored by the numbers.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of fatal shooting victims in Philadelphia increased 44%. Since then, the city has recorded more than 400 fatal shootings each year.
Over the last eight years in Philadelphia, more than one in five shooting victims has died, a rate nearly 60% higher than in Syracuse.
The day Lateef’s son was shot, he was riding in a car with two other friends just after 2 p.m. One was headed to work at Amazon. As they drove on Spruce Street in a car with tinted windows, someone opened fire.
Lateef called his mother, his godfather Wayne Sistrunk and Pastor Bernard Alex on his way to Philadelphia.
Sistrunk talked to Lateef for an hour or more of the drive. He told Lateef to pray as he drove but joked to not close his eyes.
Lateef’s first service at Well of Hope church, where he serves as a pastor, was the funeral for Sistrunk’s son, Anthony. In 2014, two men chased Anthony in a car while shooting at him until Anthony crashed his own car and died.
Sistrunk told his godson to focus on the positive: His son was alive and he’d see him soon.
By the time Lateef arrived in Philadelphia, his son had been discharged.
In the days following the shooting, Lateef tried to take his son to a nice restaurant in Ardmore, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia. His son constantly looked over his shoulder. Then he asked if he could wear a Covid mask to hide his identity.
“He was nervous, man. I knew then, yeah, we’re about to go. You’re going back to Syracuse,” Lateef said. “As soon as he got here, you could see his body language like, ‘I’m out of there.’”
For about a week, Lateef cared for his son in Syracuse.
Even 250 miles away from where he was shot, Lateef’s son struggled to fully find respite. Before the shooting, his son was a college student who had just gotten his heating, ventilation and air conditioning certification. He played PlayStation and made music.
The week after, he called his two friends who had been with him in the car. They replayed the moments of the shooting over the phone. Lateef’s son has struggled to find answers for why the shooting happened. Lateef believes his son was mistakenly targeted because he was in a car with tinted windows. He also thinks it’s possible kids on the block where his son was shot may beef with kids from the block where his son lives.
“He didn’t want to stay at the hospital because he was fearful because he didn’t know why these people shot at him,” Lateef said. “And he didn’t know if they were going to come back and shoot at him again. He’s a kid. He’s not street smart like that.”
The stress the shooting put on his son became clear at night. Lateef heard noises coming from his son’s room. Sometimes his son lay awake with the television running. Other times, Lateef found him slumped over in his bed, his headphones lopsided around his head, with his laptop in his lap. He produced music at night to take his mind off the shooting, Lateef said.
While his son stayed in Syracuse, Lateef slept downstairs to quell any of his son’s concerns that someone might break into the house.
During the day, Lateef’s son met with his father’s mentors and friends.
Noble, the community advocate, talked to him about processing the shooting, despite having recently buried his own mother.
Sistrunk came over to Lateef’s house on the East Side. Lateef’s son had his legs up and sat in the backyard of his father’s house overlooking a garden.
The two talked about how he could avoid the cycle of retaliation and anyone who might not want him to testify in court if an arrest is made. Sistrunk posed existential questions Lateef’s son hadn’t before had to consider: Where are you going to live now? Where are you going to work? Do you want to move to Syracuse? What are your options? What are your choices?
After Lateef’s son spent some time in Syracuse, Lateef took him back to Philadelphia, where he plans to live with an uncle in the suburbs.
Lateef rented an AirBnB, and he and his 18- and 20-year-old sons all hung out for a short time. As Lateef dropped off his 20-year-old son, the 18-year-old remarked at how narrow the streets were and how rough North Philadelphia could be.
He told his father how nervous he was to get into some cars, not knowing if that might make him a target.
“I know my son will be all right,” Lateef said. “It’s going to take some time to heal from that.”
‘We speak life today, not death’
Lateef has tried to regain some of the routine the shooting interrupted. He’s returned to the work that gave him purpose: preaching and fighting gun violence.
A week after his son was shot, he planned to tell his parishioners how blessed he felt that his son was still alive. He’d prepared as he typically does. Lateef shut off his phone and ruminated on the message he wanted to send.
He wanted his congregation to encourage young people to come to church and to understand his personal belief in the power of prayer.
But the morning of the Aug. 20 mass, he awoke to the news of another shooting, this one in Syracuse. Ramal Kearse, 25, had been shot and killed in Armory Square.
Kearse was the nephew of a deacon at Well of Hope.
Lateef went ahead with his sermon, telling his congregation that he believed his prayers and belief had protected his son from further harm.
“You just gotta believe. You gotta believe,” Lateef said. “Because I prayed every morning God would put a hedge of protection around my children. By the power of his Holy Ghost, my son is alive today.”
“I was at that sermon. It was a tough sermon for him,” Sistrunk said. “… It kind of left him almost feeling guilty.”
A week after Kearse’s death, Lateef and members of the anti-violence program SNUG stationed themselves in Armory Square at about 11 p.m. alongside police officers in case Saturday brought any more trouble.
The night proved quiet, allowing Lateef to go home and prepare to baptize some of his parishioners at Green Lakes State Park the following morning.
When he arrived at the park, he had a smile on his face. He had never baptized anyone at the park before.
Lateef led the three congregations gathered at the park for the baptisms in prayer. He stood up and raised his hands out to his sides, his head bowed slightly and his eyes closed at times. Lateef paced the grass as he spoke.
“We speak life today, not death,” Lateef told them. “We don’t speak tragedy, we speak healing.”
That day, Lateef spoke to those at Green Lakes about Mark 4:39, a bible verse that references Jesus’ miracle calming of a storm. The verse is meant to teach about having faith and being calm when faced with trouble.
“Whatever storm that’s going on in our life, whatever situation we’re going through,” Lateef said. “Peace, be still.”
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