Love breaks the cycle, says this New York policewoman of faith

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"The soul was born for a good purpose."

Risco Mention-Lewis, deputy police commissioner of Suffolk County, New York

WYANDANCH, New York — The faces at the meetings change every week. Many get jobs and are too busy to keep attending regularly. Others go a few times and stop showing up. Some go back to prison.

For the woman who started the meetings, none of those results are true measures of success. They mean something but they’re never the end of the story. Risco Mention-Lewis was a prosecutor for 19 years before she joined the Suffolk County Police Department. She doesn’t entertain any rosy illusions about human behavior, but she doesn’t give up on people easily either.

“I think we judge people based upon their man-made positions - their economics, their race - all these man-made things,” she says. “The soul was born for a good purpose. We think we’re all in competition with each other, but we’re not. We’re all supposed to be working together for the good purpose.”

The meetings are a central component of the Council of Thought and Action (COTA), a social and professional networking organization designed to help people in the most need of transformation achieve new stations in life. It resembles a reentry program for people who have been released from prison. While Mention-Lewis started it as a crime prevention measure, it has evolved into more than that.

Its true purpose, she says, is to enable each person to remember their purpose and achieve it. Many COTA members are doing that as they launch careers. At any given meeting, at least a few attendees will report their latest successes, with some obtaining high-paying trade jobs or opening their own businesses. Others are looking for or starting their first jobs, sometimes in their 40s or older.

The key is that they aren’t trying to do it alone. The meetings are voluntary and attract a variety of participants. Sometimes teenagers and younger kids sit next to men in their 60s who’ve spent a quarter-century in prison. Moms will attend with sons they want to keep on the right track. The sessions are a community resource, open to all. 

Similar initiatives exist around the country. The unique aspect of COTA is the way it fosters a new social network for participants, according to an independent evaluation by the Chicago Crime Lab. Before COTA, Mention-Lewis helped people find jobs and directed them to other resources, but isolated achievements did not amount to lasting success. People would get fired or stop showing up to work. Having regular contact with others who are on a transformative path provides the kind of support network so many were missing in the first place, Mention-Lewis says. People have somewhere to turn other than to their old friends and lifestyles.

Local officials have lauded COTA for its impact. Professionals of all stripes have visited since the meetings started in Wyandanch in 2012. Politicians, police officers, lawyers, doctors --  people from various stations in life have sat in on meetings to experience what they heard was happening there. Wyandanch is a small suburban neighborhood with a population of about 12,000, and a decade ago had one of the highest crime rates in Suffolk County. It had a reputation for its shootings, drugs and poverty. The crime rate has decreased significantly since Mention-Lewis focused her efforts there.

Inspiration from on high

COTA is explicitly not faith-based. Mention-Lewis’ traction, though, has much to do with her spiritual outlook on life. That has been a part of her consciousness since she was a girl, she says. She holds up her hand with fingers splayed to explain.

“God is like the palm,” she says. “That is the brain. The formulation of all of our purpose. And we are the fingers. We each have an individual purpose on the hand -- the hand of God. Sometimes we’re so far out on the tip that we forget we’re connected.”

Most people who commit crime are trying to solve legitimate problems in their lives, she says. By using illegal methods to get by, they forget that they were born for a good purpose and get stuck in a destructive cycle. The system that claims to be designed to correct that behavior also forgets that those people have a purpose, and it perpetuates the destructive cycle.

Mention-Lewis tries to break the cycle with love, and a vocal recognition of the inherent purpose in each person she interacts with. Her relationships with people with criminal records, and some still actively involved in crime, are unusual in this era of mass incarceration and militarized police. 

As head of the Community Relations Bureau, she’s a senior official in the 11th largest department in the country. About 2,500 officers cover 2,400 square miles and serve nearly 1.5 million people. She forms personal relationships with the people she polices. She then uses those bonds to teach them how to live differently. 

Her presence in meetings and other gatherings is that of a matriarch. 

Mention-Lewis speaks to Yazid Owens, a facilitator of the Wyandanch meeting. Photo by Micah Danney.

Mention-Lewis speaks to Yazid Owens, a facilitator of the Wyandanch meeting. Photo by Micah Danney.

“I can understand the roots of the harm. I think it helps me. When the guys come to me, they can feel that I care for them,” Mention-Lewis says.

Success against crime and recidivism rates is often reduced to a number that goes lower or higher. If a person gets out of prison but returns on a parole violation, statistics register that as a failure. Mention-Lewis may visit that person in jail. The work continues.

It’s easy to become cynical after so much time at the intersection of law enforcement and social work. Success can be a peak with a steep drop to disappointment. One of COTA’s special qualities is that it has spread beyond Mention-Lewis’s direct influence. She trains facilitators who can run meetings on their own. Besides the two communities on Long Island that have COTA, there are two meetings in Chicago and two more in the works there. The Chicago meetings have higher attendance than where the initiative originated.

Yet some facilitators Mention-Lewis has worked most closely with have dropped out or reverted to criminal activity. Transformation is a long and fraught process for some. There are those who stop trying or reject it from the start. 

Faith keeps Mention-Lewis going. It isn’t exactly faith in people. She doesn’t devote her energy to anyone she determines is being intentionally manipulative. A young man new to COTA once asked her how she trusts the people she works with, and she realized she had never thought about it that way, she says. She simply urges people to recognize the love she gives them, and then extend it to each other.

When they fall short, she doesn’t get discouraged because she doesn’t take credit for their shortcomings, no more than she does for their achievements.

“Not my time, God’s time. Not my way, God’s way. Not my will, God’s will,” she says.

Leaving church and finding a ministry

Mention-Lewis has a complicated relationship with churches. When she was 9 she followed her older sister to a Catholic church in their Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. She enjoyed having conversations about religion and faith with a priest there. That lasted until she was 12.

When their mother moved the family to Hanson, a white suburb about an hour’s drive south, Mention-Lewis went to a local Catholic church with a letter of introduction from the previous clergyman. The priest there told her that one of her friends had attended services but stopped coming. 

“I thought what other friend could he be talking about?” she said. “I guess he was just talking about another black person because I didn’t know anybody. I never went back to church.”

The incident was an early experience of exclusionary attitudes based on her race that she has struggled against throughout her life. As a black woman in America, Mention-Lewis is attuned to the casual assumptions that white people make about black and brown people. In her field, those assumptions shape human interactions and policy that institutionalize them and manifest in dehumanizing and sometimes horrific ways. 

Her message to the people of color she works with has always been that they can break through the barriers that exist in a society designed by and for white people. It’s harder, but not impossible. Mention-Lewis has had her doubts about the truth of that message at times. She copes with that through poetry and other creative writing.

Her experience of race gave rise to a resentment of institutional religion. That culminated in an emotional moment one day at a black church service she attended with black legislators she was at a conference with. As she sang along with a hymn, she couldn’t say the name Jesus.

“I sat down and I just started crying in church,” she says. “I realized that all I could hear in my head was white Jesus.”

She thought about her people being duped into adopting a belief system that was imposed as coercively as slavery and every other aspect of anti-blackness was. She wrote a poem about it. Its signature line was, “The same people that forced their savior on us denied us our salvation.”

It wasn’t until Mention-Lewis was at a 20-year ordination ceremony in May for a Catholic chaplain in her department (which is mostly white, especially among the leadership) that she got her faith back. 

“I saw the love of God in him,” she says. “It released me from attaching Jesus to whiteness.”

When she’s at her most fortified, Mention-Lewis is in perfect alignment with her purpose, which she uses her hands to explain. She holds up her fists with her knuckles pressed together. 

Everybody is born with wings in their backpack, she says. The wings are crumpled inside, and life experiences add rocks that weigh the backpack down. The rocks prevent the wings from taking their true shape. She slowly unfurls her fingers. Her purpose, she says, is to help people get the rocks out of their backpacks so they can find their wings. She ends with her hands open next to each other, fingers splayed.

Removing the rocks

Mention-Lewis developed a therapeutic technique she named for the rocks in the backpack concept. Her first COTA case manager, known to members as Ms. Dorothy, asked her how she was able to identify the sources of people’s pain so well. Mention-Lewis started writing down what she was asking people. She starts with the first relationship, usually from childhood, in which you knew something was wrong. She traces that thread from the negative false narrative that relationship produced through to the present moment, where it manifests in problematic ways.

COTA members close the meetings standing in a circle, touching fists and reciting the phrase, “Our thoughts become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny.” Photo by Micah Danney.

COTA members close the meetings standing in a circle, touching fists and reciting the phrase, “Our thoughts become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny.” Photo by Micah Danney.

Mention-Lewis has used the technique to cut through mental and emotional blockages with everyone from people fresh out of prison to colleagues in law enforcement. Some have said it made clear what years of therapy had failed to unearth.

Yazid Owens, a facilitator who runs the Wyandanch meetings, has seen Mention-Lewis do it with several people. “I’ve seen the toughest dude crying because of it. Came to tears,” he says. “All he could say was, ‘You’re right. I’ve never seen it that way.’”

Owens, 52, spent nearly 20 years in prison. His biggest takeaway from Mention-Lewis was learning how to slow down, take care of himself and focus on his goals. He has his own barbershop now. He’s Muslim, and he sees parallels between Quranic instructions to be good and help people and the positivity in COTA that keeps members returning and attracts new people each week.

COTA and its concepts don’t work for everybody, and major missteps are expected from those who do benefit, Mention-Lewis is quick to say. But by searching for the injury that sits on a person’s spirit, she says, a path opens toward something better.

Jeffrey Hudson, 59, is a Navy veteran who served time for drug charges. He was skeptical at first of what sounded like another stale program for troubled people.

“When I saw it was real, I decided this was where I needed to be,” he said. He’s now a substance abuse counselor.

At a meeting in April, representatives from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office attended a meeting. They were interested in starting a COTA chapter in New York City. Mention-Lewis asked COTA member Dave Little to tell them what he had gained from it in the seven years he has been involved.

Little said he started going to meetings when he got out of prison because he wanted to stay out of trouble. Soon after, he got connected with a local church where he started volunteering. He was struck by the altruism of the people there. He wasn’t used to being offered things that didn’t come with a price.

“They just wanted to help!” he said. “I was like yo, this is it.”