He turned his life around. Then a gunman showed up at his church.
By Juliana Kim
The New York Times|
Sep 08, 2020 at 1:48 PM
NEW YORK — To his friends, Edward James was the prime example of someone who had thrived after getting a second chance. He had been an alcoholic for years before sobering up and being hired as the caretaker at the Glorious Church of God in Brooklyn.
James, 62, never forgot the hard times he had experienced, his friends said, and he was quick to offer help to elderly, sick and homeless people in his neighborhood.
“He was a true caretaker, not just of the church but everyone he loved,” said Carleton King, his cousin.
Last Monday, James was shot and killed inside the church, and Thursday, a homeless man he had tried to help was arrested and charged with his murder. James' body was found in the sanctuary on the second floor, a few feet from the pulpit.
The brazen killing rattled a Brooklyn neighborhood already struggling with a wave of gun violence unlike anything seen in years.
Shootings have doubled this year in the 81st Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where James resided, in part helping to fuel a citywide surge in violence in which more than 1,000 people have been shot and 290 killed in the first eight months of the year.
Moments after community leaders held a news conference Tuesday in front of the church to denounce James' killing and call for a stronger police presence, another man was shot a few blocks away.
“Where is the urgency that we have a crisis?” said Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, at the news conference. “We have yet to see a full comprehensive plan of how we’re going to stop having the residents in these communities live in terror.”
For some, the shooting in the church felt like a new low. James' pastor, Bishop David Lindsay, said, “It may be my church today, but your church tomorrow.”
In the mid-1990s, James, who went by the nickname “Swaine,” started drinking heavily after his wife died, his friends said. Then he lost his job at a printing company and severed ties with his family. Several of his front teeth were knocked out when he fell on the floor while intoxicated.
Yvette Stewart, 70, lived two doors down from James, and sometimes she and her family would take care of him when he showed up at her house drunk. The two became close, she said, and when her father got sick, James offered to help.
But Stewart said she told him she would only agree if James quit drinking cold turkey. And so he did. “Swaine made it look easy to give up alcohol,” Stewart said.
James began to escort her father to church every Sunday. There, James became interested in the Gospel. Stewart showed him the Book of Proverbs, Psalms and then John so that he could learn more about Christianity. (Stewart showed James Proverbs so he could see that abstaining from drinking was rooted in the Bible.)
Soon, James started to help around the church, throwing out the garbage and carrying groceries into the kitchen. At first, Stewart thought James was doing it for cash tips from church members. But after a certain point, he stopped accepting money, according to Stewart.
Around 2000, he was hired as the official caretaker, and eight years later, he moved into the church. He was the first to greet newcomers and the one to stay late with the seniors until their rides arrived. He was known for always being on time and giving great pep talks.
“Anything you wanted to do in life he believed in you,” said King, his cousin. “I owe a lot of my success thus far to the confidence he gave me.”
Neighbors of the church said this week that it was strange to no longer see James cracking a joke or striking up a conversation with local residents as he swept the sidewalk.
“He always had a smile and a wave,” said one neighbor, Janelle Smith, 36, who knew James most of her life.
Friends say James' patience and compassion seemed to have no bounds. They recalled how he would push a family friend to church in a wheelchair every Sunday and bring her back home after she had become bedridden.
When the previous pastor grew old, James fed, bathed and clothed him, they said. And when one of James' cousins lost her ability to walk because of a spinal disorder, James made sure she got her hair done at the beauty salon every two weeks.
“He was always helping people for no penny,” said a close friend, Gordo Martinez, 42, who owns Tepache, a Mexican restaurant across the street from the church.
So it was no surprise to his friends that James tried to help Moriyah Lewis, a 39-year-old man in the neighborhood who appeared to be homeless and struggling with drug abuse.
Local residents said James had a cousin who knew Lewis' family and he often called Lewis “nephew.”
Last year, the church tried to help Lewis by letting him use its bathroom, take a shower and store his clothes there, Lindsay said.
But in February, according to Lindsay, church leaders cut ties with Lewis because he had become increasingly disrespectful, and had once come to the church drunk.
Martinez, who owns the Mexican restaurant, said James had persuaded him to give Lewis a construction job, but he later had to let Lewis go because he didn’t show up to work.
James also pleaded with Martinez for him to give Lewis free meals at the restaurant. Late Monday afternoon, Lewis came by the restaurant and asked for a free burrito, Martinez said. Then he headed across the street to the church, according to Martinez.
A short time later, Lewis turned up at the church’s door, where he was met by James, police said. The two men argued, police said. Then shots rang out.
A single bullet hit James in the back, police said. He climbed some stairs to a sanctuary on the second floor before he collapsed. A stained-glass window depicting the story of Jesus healing a blind man filters the sunlight near where his body was found shortly after 5 p.m.
On Thursday, police arrested Lewis and charged him with murder and criminal possession of a loaded firearm. It was not immediately known if he had a lawyer, and he could not be reached for comment.
On Friday, Lewis was arraigned and denied bail, according to the Brooklyn District Attorneys Office. Officials arrested him based on a video recording of the shooting and police body camera footage of James naming Lewis as the shooter, according to the criminal complaint against Lewis.
A few months ago, Martinez made a video of James talking about the afterlife. “I ain’t going to be here much longer,” James said in the video.
Then James paused to say hello to a woman walking by with her dog. He asked her how she was doing and made small talk. As she walked away, James turned back to the camera and picked up where he left off. “When I get there, I’ll make a barbecue,” James said of the afterlife. “Everyone’s welcome.”