MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — As a soft rain fell outside Kershaw YMCA, dozens gathered to listen as Furlesia Bell talked during an annual prayer vigil and balloon release for homicide victims.
She held a butterfly — plastic and pink and covered in glitter — but the metaphorical representation of the bauble was the important part.
She held the physical representation of change. Of a metamorphosis that she underwent, at first unwillingly, but then accepted with grace. It represented the change that all family members of homicide victims would too go through, or were in the process of navigating. It’s a burden to be on the journey.
Bell describes the butterfly in three parts.
There is the “ugly stage.” The stage where the caterpillar slinks along with unknowing purpose. It knows it has a job to do, but doesn’t quite know why. It moves through life until the second state where it tucks itself away in a safe shell for its transformation before reaching the final state, its re-emergence into a strong being.
It’s a journey that Bell — an ordained minister — has dedicated herself, over and over again. The first time not by choice, but now she willingly goes on this journey supporting other siblings, parents, children and spouses who too have lost a loved one to homicide.
Ask those who know Bell how she’d best be described and you won’t get the same answer twice.
Fireball. Tenacious. Driven. Mentor. Minister. Warrior queen. “Shero,” as her friend Cubie Rae Hayes describes her.
Her work has brought a community of grieving Montgomerians together online in her “Murder in Montgomery” Facebook group, giving them a space to cry, to be angry, to laugh, to talk about their cases or to talk about anything but them.
Her work with the Triple J Initiative, the nonprofit she started in honor of her brother, has brought together the children of Montgomery for Summer camps, taught them God’s guidance and prepared them for school with supplies.
Her work has cracked cases and her determination and tenacity for justice in her own brother’s case, has led to justice for families of other cold cases. And for that work, Bell is the Montgomery Advertiser’s October Community Hero.
FINDING PURPOSE IN TRAGEDY
Bell’s own transformation started six years ago when her brother, Charlie Jay McCord, was gunned down in his barber shop on Mount Meigs Road.
She can recount these moments with striking clarity.
“The doctor looked at me and he said he got shot, he told me how many times and he told me where he got shot,” Bell said, “and he said ‘I tried to do everything I could to save him but it was the bullet to the head that killed him.‘”
Bell was suddenly sent upon a path she couldn’t control. And she slinked upon it like the caterpillar in her metaphor. She went into autopilot mode and collected her mother who wouldn’t leave the hospital without her daughter. She knew that was her job, to take care of her mother who was now inconsolable.
Bell got to her house and inside, with the help of others, and she sat blankly at the dining room table. Then she pounded her fists on the wooden surface out of anger. And just as quickly as stage one of the butterfly process came, she slipped into stage two — the chrysalis phase.
The usual words of affirmation, of condolences, exchanged in times of grief often fell on deaf ears for those who have lost a loved one to homicide, Bell said.
“You have a lot of people coming up to you and say that it’s gonna be OK,” she said. “We know it’s never going to be OK. That does not register for our families. So we’re inside this kind of cocoon stage where we really have to come to terms with how we’re gonna cope with what’s going on.”
The tough exterior these families put up protect them. They can retreat to them when life seems overwhelming. But they also transform while nestled inside these walls. Bell is there to ensure that transformation is to a place of calm, peace if possible.
When Bell re-emerged from under the tragedy of losing her brother, she found her stride fighting for justice for McCord, ministering to children in his honor and mentoring grieving families.
MINISTERING WITH COMPASSION
This process of grieving a victim of homicide is never the same from case-to-case and Bell understands that.
At first, Bell used to reach out to the families who’d lost loved ones, but not everyone was receptive of that. Now, she makes herself available and waits for families to reach out to her. Though sometimes God puts it on her heart to reach out to a family, she said. That’s how she met Ericka Davis.
Davis and Bell first crossed paths at the steps of the state Capitol. Davis’ son, Rickem Samuel, had gone missing in 2016 after last being seen with two co-workers. He was found dead three months later on South Hopper Street.
The two of them began passing comments back and forth. Then those turned into phone conversations and from those a friendship. They became “sisters in good trouble,” as Bell calls them.
Bell was just the right person to be put in Davis’ path, the mother said. She’d been angry, and suffering a pain that no mother should have to experience. Bell wrapped her arms around Davis and sheltered her at times.
“She protects at all cost,” Davis said of Bell. “The families in her Murder in Montgomery group, they’re like her children.”
Davis, tucked in her own shell and the comfort of Bell’s guidance, began to ask God what her role in this community was.
“I start praying. ‘Lord where do I fit in in this? Where do I fit in in Murder in Montgomery,’ ” Davis said. “I can relate to these mothers who have lost children. She’s pulling me in to help her fight the battle.”
Bell stays up late and gets up early, often ministering to families either privately or on Facebook Live. The community confides in her and divulges tips because they feel safe with her.
“She’s helped solve cases that way,” Davis said. “I really wish she were on the police force. I feel like if I knew her better back when my son was killed, she would have solved his case. I really do believe that.”
Sometimes, Bell will make appearances beside families as they hold vigils, balloon releases or rallies for their lost loved one. And sometimes she’s there just in case, ready to offer a hand to hold.
“It’s about compassion,” Bell said. “You have to have compassion for these families. I refer to them as sisters and brothers. They’re my family and they refer to me as the same, because this is what we are. We didn’t ask to be on this journey, but for whatever reason we’re on this journey together.”
MOVED TO SILENCE
Small in stature, Bell approaches each family with care. She has a soft touch, a compassionate touch that’s critical in ministering to grieving families.
But while she may appear delicate, a fact she’s reminded of as she overcomes health setbacks, she remains steadfast and resolute. District Attorney Daryl Bailey and Montgomery County Commission Dan Harris learned quickly that Bell was not a woman to ignore.
Bailey and Bell met at a time when she was highly frustrated with the investigation into her brother’s murder.
“As time went by, we had conversations about how to try to provide help to the cases that went unsolved,” Bailey said. “And because of her, it sparked an interest on my part to look into that and, you know, began to notice that there were literally hundreds of cases in Montgomery that were unsolved.”
In an effort to remedy that, Bell brought the idea for a cold case unit to the table. The jurisdictional ping pong that occurred between the police department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and Bailey’s office though slowed progress on the unit.
Once it was decided Bailey’s office would oversee the work, funding had to be secured. Bell wrote to her commissioner, Harris, pleading for funding for the unit, calling him every two weeks to get an update.
On the day of the commission vote, Bell said she felt she’d gone as far as she could.
“I had this spiritual awakening and it was like God was telling me ‘you’re at 100 and you can’t go any farther,’ ” she said. “They wanted me to speak at the meeting and I couldn’t. I knew that I couldn’t speak because I’ve got to be obedient to the Lord.”
So she was, and therefore she didn’t speak. But others did, unbeknownst to them. Davis, one of those who spoke, thought she was simply signing in to say she was present for the meeting, not to speak. God works in mysterious ways, Bells said.
Before the meeting, Harris was sure they had secured a 3-2 vote in favor of the unit.
“Several members of her group were at the meeting and several of them got up and really testified,” Harris said. “And I think, at least one, maybe more, commissioners were touched. Ultimately the vote passed 4-1.”
Since the inception of the unit, warrants have already been issued in two cold cases to include one against Ibraheem Yazeed, the man accused of killing Aniah Blanchard.