YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — It doesn’t look like anything sacred happens in the parking lot of the former Bottom Dollar on Glenwood Avenue.
But not Wednesday. On Wednesday, a group of city pastors and residents seized the parking lot, declaring it sacred ground in their battle against violence in the city as they held a prayer vigil to kick of a Stop The Violence Campaign in the city.
The Rev. Kenneth Simon, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church who helped organize the effort, said the goal is to reclaim the entire city as sacred ground.
Simon said prayer is necessary to overcome the violence that has at times gripped the city over the last two years. Since Friday, two people have been killed and five others wounded. So far this year, 56 people have been shot, 15 fatally, coming off the heels of a 2020 that saw 98 people shot, including 27 of 28 homicide victims.
Simon said the violence is a “spiritual battle” and it is time for the churches and others to take back the city.
“We’re dealing with a violent spirit that has taken over the City of Youngstown and we’re here to break that chain today,” Simon said.
The vigil is part of an effort that will also see 70 days of prayer and fasting 24 hours a day from now until Aug. 31. About 150 people attended Wednesday’s event.
Prayer walks will be held in some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by violence, and church members throughout the city will be encouraged to place signs in their neighborhoods and churches encouraging people to turn away from violence, part of a campaign to saturate neighborhoods and get the anti-violence message out any way possible.
Churches will also be used to help mediate disputes, and mentors are being sought to provide positive role models for young people who are most likely to either commit or become a victim of violence.
Simon said the battle will not be won overnight, nor will it be won in a vacuum. He said it will take the combined effort of churches and residents across the city to fight the violence and it must be a sustained, prolonged event.
“It’s more than an event,” Simon said. “It must be a sustained effort.”
Rev. Lewis Macklin, pastor of Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, read from II Chronicles 7:14, where God tells the people if they humble themselves and seek him through prayer, he will respond and heal.
“Youngstown is positioned to respond,” Macklin said.
One of the people attending the rally, Crystal Carpenter, who lives on the south side, said she was there because the violence is affecting the neighborhoods and everyday life.
“There’s gunshots and everyone is scared,” she said of her neighborhood. “We can’t live like this.”
Carpenter said she also believes it will take a sustained effort of several different churches and groups to make a difference.
“We need it to stop and we need to send a message,” Carpenter said.
Also attending the rally was Floyd Ellis Sr., who also lives on the south side.
“The violence, it just has to stop,” Ellis said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Ellis said he believes more jobs would help a great deal.
“They aren’t going to do anything unless they get some jobs here,” Ellis said.
Prayers were offered for victims of violence by Rev. James Bowie, pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church. He said the scripture says God is a refuge and he asked God to provide refuge for those who have lost a loved one to violence or to those who have been hurt.
“Some family needs you now, Lord, to build them up,” Bowie said.
Rev. J. Dwayne Heard prayed for those who commit the violence, asking God to change their hearts. Rev. Derrick Anderson prayed and asked for God to help stop those who are thinking of retaliating over a past act, which fuels much of the violence in the city.
Prayers were also offered for first responders and city police officers, as well as for the mediators who are to begin training next month, for safety in the neighborhoods and for mentors as well.
Police Chief Carl Davis thanked the pastors and those in attendance, saying that since he has taken over as chief in January, it is heartbreaking to respond to crime scenes and see so many young people who are victims of violence.
He said gun violence is unacceptable and it is not the city he knows.
“It is not the Youngstown we know and love,” Davis said.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown also thanked those in attendance and the pastors, saying he, too, has seen too many young people die and change is needed.
“Our babies are worth it,” Davis said.
Youngstown’s First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver did not speak, but said afterwards that where the prayer really needs to happen is the parking lots of the bars at around 1:30 a.m. because that is when and where much of the violence is taking place.