Preventing gun violence in a city which has 230 homicide victims so far this year is a daunting task, but one interfaith organization hopes community outreach can help provide a solution. Heeding God’s Call held a anti-violence vigil and walk in response to three recent murders in the East Mt. Airy, Cedarbrook and East Germantown neighborhoods.
A group of around 60 people, most from area congregations, convened at Cliveden Park in East Mt. Airy for the Sunday afternoon rally. Though organizers had distributed leaflets prior to the event, only a handful of neighbors were in attendance.
Among those was Shirley Braswell, of East Springer Street, who says vigils like this one are important. “You just can’t put a teddybear and light some candles and that’s it,” she said. Braswell hopes the result will be that neighbors will no longer be afraid to speak up. “You just can’t close your door to this,” she stressed.
Before taking their message to the street, the group heard from Movita Harrell. “Murder has become a way of life. Our young men don’t even think that they’re going to live past 25,” she exclaimed. Harrell and her husband, Yancy, shared the story of how they lost their 18 year-old son, Charles Andre Johnson to gun violence in January 2011, at the intersection of Washington Lane and Musgrave Street. Johnson was shot and killed by two young assailants in a case of mistaken identity.
“The violence has to stop!” Harrell cried.
Representatives from Christian churches from Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill were joined by members from as far away as South Philadelphia, Fox Chase and the suburban towns of Ambler and Harleysville. Faiths ranged from Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Catholic and Judaism.
“The problems that we have are way bigger than we can solve,” admitted Rev. Delores McCabe as she addressed the group. Those who commit gun related crimes are guilty of the sin of commission, but those who refuse to stand up to it are guilty of the sin of omission, McCabe said.
“We must speak out!” she declared.
The marchers walked the two blocks down Chew Avenue, from Cliveden Park to the 200 block of East Sharpnack Street, the site of the July 27 shooting of Nafis Armstead and Gerald Jones, who remains hospitalized. Forming a circle around the still-intact stuffed animal and candle-filled memorial to Armstead, the group offered up Christian and Muslim prayers for safety and peace. Residents of the block hung out on an adjacent stoop, watching, listening, and, at times, even gently correcting organizers who were not at all familiar with the young man’s life – or theirs. As the marchers made their way back to the park, neighbors expressed words of gratitude.
Who is Heeding God’s Call
Heeding God’s Call is an activist collective which not only hosts “public witness” observations in remembrance of murder-victims but also hopes to persuade gun retailers to adopt to a “code of conduct” says Executive Director, Brian Miller. “If they adopted it, they wouldn’t be selling to straw buyers,” he asserted.
Miller said that while there are no gun shops in Northwest Philadelphia, he believes Heeding God’s Call can still work to get the community involved to end gun violence. “In this case, because there so many shootings in such a short time, we felt that we needed to come here,” Miler explained.
The three and a half year-old organization tries to connect with churches in the local areas where gun violence has occurred. Though the Islamic faith is widely practiced in communities such as East Mt. Airy and Germantown, Miller said that attempts to build a connection with Muslim leaders has not been as successful. “It’s a source of pain for us actually, because we would very much like to connect,” he remarked.
The vigils also provide an “opportunity to tell people what we do,” Miller said. The organization looks upon the closure of Colosimo’s Gun Center by Federal authorities in September 2009 as one of its success stories.
Kate Day, one of the event organizers from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy says the interfaith assembly realizes it is traumatic and difficult for crime witnesses to talk about it when a shooter remains at large. “We’re really hoping that through this that they see that they’re not alone.”
“There are people from all over the city who are standing with them,” she said.