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A city’s Ambassador of Compassion

Associated Press

Hospitals make the healer nervous, and before her lies a long hallway. But she pushes forward -- as she always does -- because she must. The man who needs her is waiting.

Never mind the countless bodies she’s seen, the bits of human flesh she’s cleaned off the streets, the shattering screams of those she consoles after their loved ones have been slain. To the germ-phobic Alicia Rasin, today’s hospital mission is scary.

Her goal, as always, is to heal. The hospital setting is incidental; the wounds she salves are not physical but emotional. John Burnley -- recovering from leg ulcer surgery but pained more by his broken heart -- needs her. His daughter Juanita was shot to death in November. And like hundreds of families who have lost loved ones to violence in this city, he has come to rely on Rasin.

For more than 20 years, she has voluntarily rushed to homicide scenes throughout Richmond to comfort the grieving. It’s a monstrous task; except for the last few years, Richmond’s homicide rate typically has ranked among the highest in the nation.

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She organizes candlelight vigils for the dead, arranges their funerals, helps their families cope with the pain. Sometimes, people call her to homicide scenes before they call the cops.

She gives meals to the homeless, serves as a mother figure to the motherless, provides hope to the hopeless. Local children who do good are invited to choose a gift from the Christmas tree she keeps year-round in her house.

Children who are up to no good are invited to look at the casket she keeps year-round in her van -- a sobering reminder of where they’ll end up if they don’t shape up.

Virginia’s governor once dubbed her the city’s Ambassador of Compassion. Richmond’s chief of police calls her Mother Teresa.

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“It’s a calling,” she says, her pack-a-day smoker’s voice deep and sandpapery. “I couldn’t do this if God did not call me to do it. There’s no way humanly possible.”

‘Like an angel’

There’s a loud click-clack as the 3-inch heels of her gold shoes strike the hospital hallway’s tiles. As usual, Rasin is dressed to impress. The shoes match her gold suit, giant gold earrings and gold tooth. Her hip-length dreadlocks are hidden beneath an elaborate gold head wrap. All 10 fingers are encrusted with gold and diamond rings. Her toenails and talon-like fingernails are, of course, gold. Hollywood-sized sunglasses hide her light brown eyes, but she’s hardly anonymous.

Burnley’s face lights up when she reaches his room.

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“She always appears,” he says, eyes shining with tears. “Like an angel.”

Within minutes, Burnley is weeping. He doesn’t understand why his daughter had to die.

“I miss her so much,” he moans. “So much.”

Rasin leans close, places her hand on his arm. “You have to cry,” she murmurs. “Just let it out.”

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She listens quietly as he purges his grief. It is a process they repeat several times a week, either in person or by phone. When his tears have dried, he stares at her thoughtfully.

“I used to often wonder about you,” he says. “I used to see you on TV. I said, ‘Now who is that lady?’ ”

‘You have me’

The woman standing in the middle of the road was screaming. The man slumped over the wheel of a nearby car was her son. He’d been shot to death.

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Rasin, then in her 20s, was driving home from church when she happened upon the scene. She pulled over, leaped out of the car and hurried to the grieving mother.

My son, my son! the woman wailed. I don’t have anybody left!

“You have Jesus,” Rasin told her. “And you have me.”

It was in that moment, Rasin says, that she realized her calling.

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She’d already spent much of her life helping others. As a child, she joined her aunt and uncle on missionary trips. She snatched the steaks her mother left on the counter and handed them to the homeless who slept in the park across from her house.

As a teen, she became a junior missionary at her Baptist church. In her 20s, she attended funerals dressed in a nurse’s uniform and carried smelling salts so she could revive mourners who fainted.

She earned a bachelor’s in psychology from Virginia State University, wanting a career that would help others. Her beloved father supported her financially, allowing her to focus full time on her volunteer work.

She generally rises at 5 a.m. and heads to church. On her way to homicide scenes, she prays. Once there, she calms the grieving.

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She often becomes their unofficial spokeswoman, speaking to reporters seeking information about the deceased. She takes the families’ calls at all hours of the night. She listens, but never presumes to understand their pain.

Walking down the street or driving through the city, she stops to talk to young people who look like they may be heading down the wrong path. She listens to their troubles, hands out a little advice.

“Out of 12 that I talk to, I may reach but two,” she says. “But I say, ‘Thank you, Lord, that’s better than reaching none.’ ”

A haze of grief hung over Rosetta Mallory in the days after her son Dwayne was killed last August. Then Rasin appeared on her doorstep. She consoled the grieving mother and helped her two remaining sons grapple with their brother’s death.

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Dwayne had been so excited to attend his mother’s graduation from nursing school. The ceremony fell on the day of his wake. That day, Rasin helped Mallory dress in her cap and gown and pose for a picture -- an homage to her son.

Mallory doesn’t know how she would have coped had it not been for Rasin.

“It was like an angel just flew from heaven,” Mallory says.

In 2002, Rasin founded Citizens Against Crime, a nonprofit group dedicated to combating violence in Richmond. In its early days, the group spent weekends marching through the city’s violence-riddled neighborhoods, Rasin shouting into a bullhorn. She passed out fliers with phone numbers of domestic-violence shelters, drug abuse hotlines and counselors.

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She asked a local mortician for a small casket, then asked Precious -- the little girl down the street -- for her baby doll to place inside it. Rasin and the others carried the casket through the city.

The coffin has been a mainstay, though it can be unnerving to the uninitiated.

Last Thanksgiving, a few teenage boys offered to help her load boxes of food for families of homicide victims into her van. One of them made the mistake of opening the trunk.

“What the hell?!” he shouted, dropping a box of turkeys and canned goods, which rolled down the street. “There’s a damn casket!”

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Recalling the incident, Rasin roars with laughter. Despite all the suffering she sees, she maintains a raucous sense of humor. Indeed, she says, the best part of her work is getting those in pain to laugh.

Her need to help seems innate, as does her ability to cope with trauma, says Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who has known Rasin since she was a baby.

“I used to wonder how she could stand the ordeal of witnessing so much of the brutality,” he says. “But it’s almost a built-in resilience.”

But the misery can get to her. She is 55, and has had her share of health issues. Ten years ago, her doctor demanded she stop attending funerals because they were wearing her out.

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She has survived stomach cancer and was left temporarily blind by a brain tumor. Two years ago, she had open-heart surgery.

Two days after the hospital released her, she was counseling people by phone.

Occasional trips to the Bahamas soothe her spirit. She takes long drives through the Virginia countryside in her blue convertible that bears the license plate “AMBASOR,” a nod to the “Ambassador of Compassion” nickname Gov. Timothy M. Kaine bestowed on her when he was Richmond’s mayor.

Rasin still lives in the home where she grew up, on a hill overlooking the city. Everywhere, there are reminders of her father, who died in her arms in 2006 as they watched “American Idol.”

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In the depths of her mourning, she thought about quitting her work, but her father had always told her to keep on keeping on.

And so she does. Disability checks allow her to continue volunteering.

But the work can be ugly, says Rasin’s close friend Valerie Burrell-Muhammad.

Years ago, they were driving past a homicide scene when Rasin noticed the cleanup crew hadn’t removed all the bloodstains and bits of human tissue from the pavement. There was a school bus stop nearby; Rasin worried about the children’s health. She pulled over and got to work.

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Placing pieces of body matter into a plastic bag was too much for Burrell-Muhammad. These days, Rasin always keeps a jug of bleach and rubber gloves in her van.

Now, when it’s necessary, she handles cleanup duty alone.

‘One of the soldiers’

“Reducing violent crime is easy: You just need an army to do it,” says John Venuti, captain of the Richmond Police Department’s major crimes unit. “And she is one of the soldiers.”

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But with the accolades has come criticism. Some accuse her of seeking the spotlight, exploiting families’ pain to get attention.

The critics are either jealous or “simple as hell,” Rasin says. “I tell them: ‘Try doing what I do. Try doing what I do for one week. I’ll shake your hand if you can do it.’ ”


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