YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Just hours before a group of churches unveiled an ambitious prayer and community engagement effort to address violence in the city, police were investigating the 13th homicide of the year.
A news release from the police department said a 16-year-old boy was found shot to death about 1:30 p.m. in an apartment on Hammaker Street on the north side. Another juvenile has been taken into custody for questioning, police said.
Investigators were still searching a wooded area off of Burlington Avenue when the pastors convened as storm clouds gathered over the parking lot of the Greater Friendship Baptist Church at Lakewood Avenue and Hillman Street.
The Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, said area churches will be banding together this summer in a combination of prayer, mediation and social programs to help the tide of violence in the city that has seen, as of Thursday, 50 people shot for the year, 13 fatally.
Last year at this time, there were 31 people, including 12 of 13 homicide victims, shot in the city and 98 overall, including 27 of 28 homicide victims. That came after a year in 2019 when 58 people were shot.
The effort will kick off with a prayer rally June 23 at the former Bottom Dollar store on Glenwood Avenue. That will also be the first day of a continuous 24-hour, 7-day a week prayer cycle that will last until Aug. 31, Rev. Simon said.
By having community members show up in person and sign up to pray throughout the summer, it gets residents engaged, Rev. Simon said, and that is one of the things needed to help fight the violence.
“It has to be a movement we all have to embrace, and the church has a critical role to play,” Rev. Simon said.
Representatives from several churches and community groups were on hand for the press conference as well as police Chief Carl Davis and Mayor Jamael Tito Brown. City council members Samantha Turner and Julius Oliver were also in attendance.
Rev. Lew Macklin, of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, said it is important for churches to link up with the public.
“The sacred and the secular must work together,” Rev. Macklin said.
Rev. Macklin, Rev. Simon and other clergy on hand also said they were banking on the power of prayer to help the city in its fight against violence. They quoted Second Chronicles from the Bible, where the scripture says if people come before God and humble themselves, God will answer.
“Prayer does indeed change things,” Rev. Macklin said. “We can not police our way out of this. We need to come together as a community.”
“We believe this is a spiritual battle we are in,” Rev. Simon added.
Other measures include churches posting signs urging people to turn away from violence and also to begin healing. Signs will also be available at no cost for people to put in their yards so the entire community can be involved, Rev. Simon said.
There will be prayer walks through some of the areas in the city that see the most violence, Rev. Simon said.
“What we have to do, we have to go to the streets to where these young people are,” Rev. Simon said.
Churches will also open their doors to help different groups mediate disputes before they turn into gunfire, Rev. Simon said. He said a lot of church members know the people who are committing violence, and they will try to reach out to them through the church members.
Guy Burney, head of the city’s Community Initiative To Reduce Violence, offered to provide mediation training to anyone who asks.
Dr. Rosie Thompson-Taylor, board president of the Interdenominational Alliance, said violence has a ripple effect.
“Every time one of our people is injured or killed, it hurts all of us,” she said.
Thompson-Taylor said she is confident the community can come together to make a difference.
Minister Ted Brown, who represented the Alliance For Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods (ACTION), said the violence is another pandemic on top of the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is evil and demonic,” he said. “We will not be held hostage in our homes and communities.”
Rev. James Bowie, pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church, said he believes a lot of violence comes from bruised egos and feelings. He said someone is hurt, injured over a failed relationship or a lost job or other issue, and when they are hurting, it doesn’t take too much to push them to use violence, especially with the economic conditions created by the pandemic.
Revenge is also a way of hurting, he said. Rev. Bowie imagines the friends of the person who was found shot to death Sunday in a parking lot on Glenwood Avenue were probably plotting revenge as he spoke.
He admitted it is not easy, but there has to be a way to help those people heal so they don’t commit violence, Rev. Bowie said.
Rev. Simon said he realizes more will need to be done, but for now, he wants to focus on events that will spur people to get involved.
“This is the first step. It does not cure everything,” Rev. Simon said. “But it gets the churches and community involved.”
Anyone interested in signing up for a block of prayer can call New Bethel Baptist Church at 330-747-2125.