GRANT TOWN, W.Va. — Twenty years ago this week, the eyes and ears of national media turned the spotlight on North Central West Virginia.
They came to Grant Town, with their satellite trucks and coiffed news crews, asking questions and digging for details about the young man found dead on July 4th near Paw Paw Creek. Websites blasted the news with headlines like, “Bad Blood,” and, “Slaying of a Gay Black spurs Calls for Justice.”
And then, just like that, they were gone; the Warren family was left at their home in Grant Town to pick up the pieces. The question lingers in cases like these, after the perpetrators are put away and public interest seems to move on with the next news cycle: Is forgiveness possible?
It has been 20 years since 26-year-old Arthur “J.R.” Warren’s life ended at the mouth of Grant Town. These days, you can still find his mother, Brenda Warren, singing gospel music and spending time in prayer at her church only a mile or so down the road from the place that J.R. died. Anyone who hears her sing knows her voice is as big as her faith. Her gift of song is something she shared with J.R.
“J.R. loved to sing,” she remembered. “He wanted to know, why can’t everybody get along?”
With his big heart, J.R. was the Warren family cheerleader.
“J.R. would see me and he’d come running, ‘Hey Ma, you so pretty! Ain’t my momma pretty?!” Brenda smiled wide as she recalled her son in happier times, but she fought back tears recalling the day his song stopped.
“J.R. was 26 years old. He was black, and he was gay. […] One week before J.R. was killed […] He came to me and he said ‘Mom… I feel like a bird …and my wings are broken, I can’t fly.”
Brenda explained that J.R. was picked on for being gay, and he struggled at times in his small, West Virginia hometown. Then, on the night of July 3, he met with three local teenagers at a nearby empty home. Brenda stated that two of the boys wore steel-toed boots, used to beat and kick J.R. until his skull cracked.
Then, they drove J.R. to the bridge over Paw Paw Creek and ran him over four times. J.R. died on the morning of Independence Day.
In a clip from local news coverage in 2000, Brenda can be heard addressing her son’s murder through her tears
“God is love. And this here was not love.”
Two of the boys were sentenced to prison. The third was tried as a juvenile for reporting the crime. Brenda, faced with life without J.R., says she received a sign.
“I’m crying and praying. And the little dog came and got right beside me and he stretched out his front paws and his back paws…like he was praying! “You heard people say their life flashed before their eyes? I could see me coming up in the years […] Lord I said, I’m so sorry. I said please forgive me. […] I said help me to forgive ‘em.”
That very day, Brenda said God tested her at the local Sak-N’-Pak.
“I pull in the yard, and the ringleader, his father was the water man. And I recognized his car. So I get out of my car, and I look up to heaven, and I say Lord you gotta help me. […] He started walking towards me,” she remembered. “And he walked up to me and he said Brenda, I’m so sorry. And I said I don’t hate you, I don’t hate your son. I said come here Bill, give me a hug. The only one who can help you is Jesus. […] I got in my car, and I cried all the way home because I know God had heard my prayer.”
It was an answered prayer sent in the middle of an unspeakable tragedy. It was also a new direction for Brenda and her big, beautiful voice.
“He said when people is hurt and their heart is broken, sometimes that’s the only way they hear God. He said ‘I want them to hear you.’”
Now, she has big plans. She wants to set up a support system for other families shattered by violence. She speaks about loving those families, feeding them, maybe providing scholarships.
“Everything that’s going on right now? I couldn’t look at George in that picture but one time. I couldn’t look at it. It broke my heart. Because to me, what happened to George. What happened to JR? That’s a modern day lynching.”
Through it all, Brenda said she is called to preach. J.R.’s younger sister Audra is called to write and remember:
And J.R.’s song is louder than ever, thanks to his mother’s big faith… and voice.