Dedric Hammond’s big heart pumped cold blood for the first part of his life. Back then, he was known as “Bad News,” a genuinely scary guy who grew up in Harlem’s St. Nicholas houses. He recounts his dangerous reputation uptown as a “stick up kid,” known to randomly rob people at gunpoint.
Both a perpetrator and victim of violence, Hammond was shot in multiple incidents throughout his young adulthood and ended up spending eight years in prison. While incarcerated, he ruminated over his given name.
“I started thinking, who would want to be around a guy named Bad News?” said Hammond. “And how will Bad News be able to infiltrate all the places I need to be? To be able to do this healing or working on saving lives with one community and one relationship at a time, I gotta ‘R.I.P.’ Bad News.
“One dude said at one time, ‘Yo, I ain’t gonna be around this dude. That’s Bad News, he a stick up kid.’ He didn’t even meet me. He doesn’t know me personally. But he just went off the name.”
So “Bad News” died behind bars. But Hammond survived and left prison believing Harlem’s cycle of violence ended with him. And this time, he chose his name: Be-Loved.
Be-Loved is also the subject of a new Amsterdam News documentary directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Andre Lambertson and produced by the paper’s investigative editor Damaso Reyes and edited by Brent Joseph. The 26-minute film, which can be seen at amsterdamnews.com/beyond, follows the credible messenger through Harlem as he works with youngsters.
“I realized we had an amazing opportunity because, in my mind, nobody has been taught from a perspective of being a guy behind the gun to talk about what it’s like…and to bring empathy,” said Lamberston.
In the eponymous film, Be-Loved is shown mentoring young Harlemites through personal experiences and a sub-par jump shot. In one scene, he talks to a council of school-aged boys and breaks down why someone would hold a gun for someone else. Through the exercise, he ties the behavior to empathy while also denouncing the behavior. “Experience is the best teacher,” Be-Loved says in the film.
R.I.P. to Redemption
If Hammond’s story of rebirth evokes religious overtones, it’s because Be-Loved’s newfound Christian faith was a driving factor in his redemption. Be-Loved says he realized through his Bible studies that Jesus worked specifically with sinners, not pastors or deacons or the devout church ladies.
“He worked with people like me, [who] were not living a righteous life—but we could if we got the proper teacher,” he said. “Understanding that, I took ‘love’ because the word love means God, and God is love. And I took the word ‘be,’ because we can be whatever we want to be—we don’t have to be this one set thing.
“Sometimes we think we always have to be gangsta. But that’s not a fact, right? Because [not] every place tolerates the same thing. Becoming Be-Loved…it meant [becoming] a sincerely loved person.”
Today, he serves as a credible messenger for the Living Redemption Community Development Corporation, which operates out of the Soul Saving Station, a Harlem church known for taking in those who are at their worst.
The work involves talking with young men not so different from the former Bad News and helping them find alternatives to violence and incarceration. Be-Loved’s focus isn’t school or work, but a genuine transformation from the inside out. It starts with relating to them. Employment services have long been seen as a key to violence interruption by the city’s social service apparatus, but most young men Be-Loved works with can’t hold down a job because of the baggage they carry with them whenever they clock in. Building empathy through someone these kids will listen to is essential.
An untapped, and underfunded, resource
Clinton Lacey, a former deputy commissioner with the NYC Department of Probation, said credible messengers are an essential, but rather underused, tool in under-resourced Black and brown communities. He’s known Be-Loved for two decades and sees him as a poster child of the practice, which he describes as older, justice-impacted individuals who leverage their experiences and relationships in such neighborhoods to create peace and change. Lacey, who now runs the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement out of Washington, D.C., sees this work as critical and irreplaceable from outside social services.
“It begins with an acknowledgment there that the answer is in the community,” said Lacey. “The answer is embodied in people who have shared life experiences of marginalization. You do it by investing in Be-Loved; by providing space, opportunity, and resources. The service that he and [other] credible messengers provide is critical.
“So we argue and fight for and help to leverage resources to organizations such as [Living Redemption]—this is more than a job, but it’s full-time work. It’s beyond full-time. Be-Loved and others should be able to feed their families and take care of themselves.”
Both Be-Loved and Lacey maintain that it takes a village to save a child, so those from the community know how to best serve it. Unfortunately, there’s rarely a grant-writing course available at the school of hard knocks, but Lacey said credible messengers are often unaware of funding available for their organizations.
And there’s plenty standing in the way of today’s Bad News becoming tomorrow’s “Be-Loveds.” It takes more than a kind heart to change for young men born into communities like Harlem that Lacey said are externally “under attack” by poverty and lack of access to healthcare and education.
“The street rules change every day…and it’s hard for some people to maneuver through there,” said Be-Loved. “Some of us [need to] take a certain type of stand to be a stand-up guy out there. I [had to] be cold-blooded, I can’t be this gentle, nice kid that holds doors for everybody. Because I might hold the door for a ‘stick up kid’ to rob me.”
Given such external circumstances, transmuting justice-involved individuals into credible messengers requires a concerted effort.
“There are a wealth of credible messengers or potential credible messengers in these communities,” said Lacey. “The resource is there, but it needs to be invested. It needs to be [activated]. It needs to be supported. But it’s there.”
Last week, Be-Loved met with the Amsterdam News at Soul Saving Station. In person, he’s as large and lumbering as the film portrays, but his warm, gap-toothed smile belies the young boy who endured despite a youth stolen from him by violence, gang life, and incarceration.
Be-Loved asked to move the interview inside because the church was holding a job fair in its parking lot. There’s loud music and a BBQ going on. When he got to the door, he paused, whether from a life of stick-ups or simply because there’s a plate of food in his hands, but Be-Loved’s hesitation was quickly replaced by relief and joy. And another wide smile.
Decades later, he can finally be that gentle kid who holds doors open for others without guilt or fear.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.