YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — The Rev. Kenneth Simon knew in January he wanted to do something to try and stop the violence, but he had no idea what that would entail or how it could be done.
The intervening months, however, with input from other churches and groups, have shaped a plan that kicks off at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with a prayer vigil in the parking lot of the former Bottom Dollar store at 2649 Glenwood Ave.
The Stop The Violence Community Prayer Vigil will also begin a 70-day period of prayer and fasting for the city to ask God to stop the violence. Several different churches and community groups, including the City of Youngstown Community Initiative To Reduce Violence, are taking part not just in the vigil, but in the prayer and fasting and the other steps of the plan to help reduce the violence.
But in January, Simon, who is the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church on Hillman Street, had no idea of any of those plans. Shortly after police Chief Carl Davis was appointed, Simon said he told Davis he had a message on his heart to try and find a way to get people to come together to stop the violence.
“I didn’t know what that looked like but I said I would attempt it,” Simon said.
Those at the prayer vigil will be calling for God’s help almost directly across the street from where Keyshaun Bunch, 23, was found shot and killed June 6 in a parking lot at Glenwood and West LaClede avenues. A man was wounded in a shooting in almost the exact same place the week before Bunch was killed.
Early Tuesday morning, a man was shot dead and another wounded in the parking lot of a 2800 South Ave. bar and Friday evening a man was gunned down in front of a Seneca Avenue home on the North Side.
For the year, Youngstown has seen 55 people shot, 15 fatally. Last year at this time, 38 people had been shot, including 14 of the city’s 15 homicide victims.
For the year, 98 people were shot, including 27 of 28 homicide victims. That is an increase from 2019, when 58 people were shot, including all 20 of the city’s homicide victims.
Simon said he believes those who want to stop the violence need to go where it takes place.
“We need to be out in the community where these violent acts are taking place,” Simon said.
This year, 32 of the people shot have been shot on the South Side, including nine of 15 homicide victims.
In January and in the months that followed, Simon said he began to realize an effort that would encompass the entire community was needed to help stem the tide of violence. He also said he wanted to make sure that any effort that would be made would be something that could be sustained and keep people involved for the long run, rather than just an event or two that would get people excited but not keep them engaged.
“What we needed was some kind of sustained effort,” Simon said. “Events don’t change things.”
The May 23 shooting at the Torch Club on Salt Springs Road that killed two people and injured three more accelerated the process, Simon said. When Davis was on his way to the crime scene, he called Simon and asked for prayer.
Simon said he was able to have a more clearer vision of what needed done the next day.
One of the ways to keep people involved is the prayer and fasting campaign, Simon said. He said people who will take the time to pray and sacrifice have a stake in what’s going on and will most likely stay engaged for a period of time because of the personal effort they are putting in.
“It gets people involved because it gives them a part to play,” Simon said. “You might not be able to be a mediator or a mentor, but you can pray.”
Several people and some churches have signed up for the 70 days of prayer and fasting, but there are several more spots available. Anyone who is interested in taking part can call New Bethel at 330-747-2125.
But there are other steps involved as well. Simon said churches will be giving away signs people can place in their yards and at their churches encouraging people to turn away from violence.
He said it is a way to saturate neighborhoods with a city-wide message, to expose the antiviolence message all over the city.
There will also be prayer walks this summer in some of the spots of the city that have seen the most violence, so they can bring their message to the people who need it, Simon said.
And churches will now be open for mediating disputes, Simon said. He said church members often know people in the community who are engaged in violence or exposed to it and the churches can play a part by offering a safe space for those people to meet with others to work out their differences.
Church members will undergo training by Guy Burney, the head of CIRV, to help mediate disputes. Those people who are mediators, in turn, will be motivated and engaged in the community to help stop the violence, Simon said.
Mentors are also needed and will be trained to provide a strong, positive influence for young people in the city, Simon said. He said while mentors are needed for young women, several more are needed for young men, who are usually the people who engage in the violence and are victims of it.
Burney said mentoring is a key to keep people engaged in the effort. He said someone who puts that much effort into helping people are generally people who do not stay on the sidelines. Plus, the people who are mentored will begin to have a positive effect in their neighborhoods, Burney said.
Events like the vigil and the prayer walks are also good at focusing people’s energy and also keeping their efforts visible in the community, Burney said.
Keeping people throughout the city engaged is the key to making the stop the violence effort succeed, Burney said.
“We have to be able to do this together,” Burney said.