For Every Homicide, a Vigil Against Violence

From Associated Press

One hundred-twenty-four times this year, violence has taken a life on the streets of this city. One hundred twenty-four times, the community has responded with a radical act:

Prayer.

In this, the bloodiest year in Indianapolis history, people have refused to allow homicide victims to be reduced to fleeting images on the evening news. They have left the comfort of their homes, drawn to the places where bullets and blades have done their work.

Not just once or twice, but again and again, so many times that every victim becomes seared into the community's memory.

Each week, the circle grows. Now, there are 250 participants, drawn from suburban churches and city congregations. After each death, they arrange a prayer service at the slaying site with friends and family of the victims.

They sing and pray and hug one another. Then they pour oil in the form of crosses to reconsecrate the ground.

Critics say that the Prayer Vigil Network is not solving the root causes of violence, and that the continued growth in the city's homicide rate reflects the futility of the group's actions.

But 129 times last year and already 124 times through the end of this September, participants have gone to the city's most dangerous neighborhoods to cry to the heavens for an end to the violence.

"It's a way of being one with the world, of being one with the city," says Mary Jo Matheny, a Catholic laywoman. "I feel that this is the most important thing in my life, and it's so small. . . . I know it's the right thing."

In 1995, religious leaders wanted to address racial tensions over allegations of police brutality, and to get involved in the inner city.

Why not, it was suggested, hold prayer vigils at slaying sites? Other cities had tried it from time to time, usually choosing one site as symbolic of urban violence.

One day in February 1996, Disciples of Christ minister Les Galbraith, Catholic nun Patricia O'Brien and others decided to stop talking and start praying.

They began visiting the city's north side and commercial strips on the outskirts of downtown where many killings occur.

In these neighborhoods, violence is so commonplace and fear so prevalent that not even the prayer vigils could initially draw many people from behind drawn curtains or locked doors.

For many of the victims' families and friends, the idea that people would come to their neighborhoods to pray for them was remarkable.

Valerie Barnett breaks into tears as she talks about her 21-year-old son, Gerald, shot in the back at a low-income housing complex as he ran from a gunman seeking his $140 Air Jordan shoes.

She once thought of suicide, but on this night--sitting in the basement of North United Methodist Church, where the prayer network is holding a dinner and service--she says it is important to know she is not alone.

"The way the world is today is so bad, it really helps to know everyone can come together," she says.

Across the table is Sin Ae Jung, her brother and father. Her mother was killed by a bullet fired through the door of a locked storage area in their general store, where Mrs. Jung cowered. Today, Sin Ae and her brother arrange their college classes so one of them is always in the store with their father.

"Truly, I really don't understand. I'm still confused about what God's will is," she says. Around her Korean Presbyterians, black Baptists, suburban Catholics, prosperous white Protestants worship and eat together.

"I just appreciate we're not alone in Christ," she says. ". . . The unity is so amazing. I really appreciate it. I think that was God's love."

Sometimes, the vigil is small--just Galbraith and O'Brien, shoveling snow on a winter weekend morning to reach a desolate spot. Sometimes, as many as 100 people gather when another name is added to the wooden peace poles listing the victims.

The circle has been growing, and each time participants return to a neighborhood, more people who once hovered behind living room drapes join them.

"We stand with the community, and that has a lot of meaning for the community," says the Rev. Ivan Jenkins. "Christ is entering in their lives. . . . They know there's something better in their lives that they haven't seen in the last few hours or days."

Emma Shouse, whose brother was slain last year, attends the vigils whenever she can. "I wouldn't have made it to age 74 without prayer," she said. "I'm a strong believer in prayer. That's my life."

But is God listening?

For vigil volunteers, the efficacy of prayer is hard to measure. Some believe, even though violent deaths are on the rise, that the numbers would be even greater without the vigils.

O'Brien says there are days of violence when she cries out, "Why, God, why?" But there is always an answer, guiding her back to the vigils: "If we can do just a little bit of good in our city, we've done a lot."

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