– by Jim Memmott, Senior Editor –
Democrat and Chronicle.
The magnetic Joy Powell has taken pain from her past and created a positive message. On Wednesday, Pastor Joy Powell will find herself once again at the front of a group of people, marching against violence, deploring poverty, crying out for peace.
As Powell admits, she has taken a long and dangerous route to get to the head of the march against violence and its causes. Once part of the problem, she now sees herself as very much part of the solution.
“This is where I need to be,” she says. “This is my calling. To be in the streets, in a positive way.”
She has been reaching out lately to new groups, sometimes making unlikely linkages, such as that with the Green Party, another sponsor of Wednesday’s march.
“She’s one voice, but she’s one voice who has been heard in an awful lot of neighborhoods,” says Rochester Police Chief Robert Duffy. “The Joy Powells are important because they are out in the neighborhoods talking with people on their front porches and on street corners. We’ve got to keep on pushing.”
With the fervor of a survivor and a voice made hoarse from preaching, Powell tells her story at rallies, always emphasizing the time when she was running drugs, living in fear.
Her arrest in 1992 led to almost three years in prison, difficult years, but years that stopped her free-fall toward violent death, Powell says.
“God let me get caught,” she says.
Calls to Action
Though she has been involved in anti-violence groups since she got out of prison in 1995, Powell has increased her efforts since one son was killed in 2001 and another hurt this year.
To Powell, these are calls to action.
“I’ll jump on my blowhorn,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Listen up. It’s Pastor Joy, and I’ve come to cry out against what’s happening.’ I can’t cry out too loud against the drugs. I can’t cry too loud against the killings.”
Powell allows that sometimes simply crying out is not enough. She suggests that of late she is doing more to put together programs, systematic efforts at stemming violence.
But Powell’s cousin, Bishop Gabriel Hallback of Rochester’s Plowing the Way to God Ministry, sees Powell’s rush to protest as necessary.
“Joy has spurts,” he says. “And sometimes people can’t keep up with her. They want to plan, to debate… Some things require spurts.”
Hallback, 41, has known Powell since she was young Joyce Blake.
In a sense, the girl he remembers does not seem like the confident, charismatic and sometimes confrontational woman Powell is now.
“There was a certain peace about her when she was a child,” he says. “She wasn’t like a thermostat going up and down. She was always in the middle… But as a kid, she had a very caring heart, and she does.”
Powell remembers her childhood differently: She is struck by her own anger.
Powell was reared in Brooklyn and in Rochester by her mother, Cherrie Bartlett, who rose out of tough circumstances to become a school administrator.
Her father– remembered by Powell as abusive towards her mother– was shot to death at age 35.
When she was 15, Powell was stabbed when she tried to break up a fight.
“My lungs collapsed, I was bleeding. They didn’t give me a day to live,” she says.
In 1978, when she was 16, Powell gave birth to Terrell Blake. Not that long after that she met Gregory Wright of Rochester, her first husband. They had two sons, Gregory Blake and David Wright.
Powell and Wright separated in 1983 and were later divorced. In 1985, she married Michael Powell. They would have one son, Calym Blake Powell.
That marriage, too, would unravel. By 1989, when she was 27, Powell was living in Rochester, the mother of four, trying to make ends meet by working as a beautician.
“But I ended up going the wrong way,” Powell says.
In the early 1990s, she began to run illegal drugs and weapons along the New York state Thruway. Powell says she didn’t use drugs, but she profited from those who did.
“I had lost my faith,” Powell says. “I got discouraged as a mother. I was trying to get quick money for my children.”
Early in 1992, Powell was arrested and charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance.
“I don’t call it getting caught,” she says. “I call it getting rescued.”
Powell served most of her sentence in the Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County.
After her release, she was one of almost 60 women who agreed to $1,000 payments from the state after they filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice of filming inmates being strip-searched.
“Prison was a reality check,” Powell says. “I went through hell, being locked, being fondled. It was a nightmare.”
Powell came back to Rochester and opened a hair salon on Chili Avenue.
“It was rough,” she says of her efforts to make ends meet. “I was used to a lot of money, but I refused to sell drugs again.”
Powell soon began working with an anti-violence campaign organized by the city.
On Aug. 13 of last year, Powell was at home when some children knocked on her door. They told her that her son David Wright, 18, had been shot on Fulton Avenue.
Police arrested Andre Lamar Parsons, 20, saying he had shot Wright in an argument over drugs. Parsons was later convicted.
Powell insists that the murder had nothing to do with drugs, that Parsons shot her son after her son had challenged something Parsons said about her.
The murder and the trial were devastating, Powell says. Her sorrow was compounded in June of this year when her oldest son, now 23, was shot. The shooting left Blake with some paralysis.
Then, in July, a 7-month-old baby Powell had been rearing died of natural causes.
“His death really caught me off guard,” Powell says.
By then, Powell had returned to the religion of her youth.
“She started coming back in 1996,” says Hallback, who operates a small church on Lowell Street. “She was still internally angry, but I kept dropping seeds of faith, telling her to come to church but not pressing the issue.”
The faith kept getting stronger, and a year ago Hallback ordained Powell, who opened an offshoot of his church on Jay Street next door to her salon.
Recently, Powell moved her church, Plowing the Way to God Outreach Ministry, to 369 Child St.
Powell sees a link between her activism and her religion.
“I’ve had more success in reaching out to people since coming back to God,” she says. “I felt so guilty about selling drugs. Now I can go back to Jay Street and show people I’ve changed.”