A prayer vigil to end gun violence is held in Mt. Airy. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence, a chapter of Heeding God’s Call, asked residents to put their “faith in their feet” by “standing on the side of love.”

Heeding God’s Call, a faith-based movement to end gun violence, gathered in Cliveden Park in East Mt. Airy on Sunday afternoon to mourn the death of Northwest Philadelphia victims of gun violence: Nafis Armstead, 23, Saleen Harding, 27, and Shahid Hawkins, 21.

About 75 people of various religious denominations from Germantown, Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, Manayunk, Roxborough, Ambler and Gwynedd attended the prayer vigil.

Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God’s Call, said the group came “to witness” and to make “a call of action to the neighborhood” to stop the gun violence that plagues Philadelphia.

“We want folks from this neighborhood to know they’re not alone … and we’re doing what we can to reduce gun violence,” said Miller, who lost his only brother to gun violence.

Miller said Heeding God’s Call appealed to people of faith because it provides opportunities “to live their faith on their feet.”

“More people of faith understand they have a religious responsibility to care for their neighbors,” Miller said, “and saving their lives is as basic as you can get.”
Rabbi Linda Hortzman, of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Manayunk, said the organization decided to “mark as many murders” as they could by their “physical witness.”

Hortzman said Heeding God’s Call is not going to let the violence and killing continue without saying, “Stop – this is enough.”

“It’s much too easy to accept it and let it go by and happen,” she said. “So, hopefully, a presence, a witness, and an acknowledgement will call people’s attention to it and make a difference.”

“The violence has to stop,” said Motiva Johnson-Harrell, whose 18-year-old son was murdered in a case of mistaken identity on Jan. 13, 2011.

She and her husband, Yancy Harrell, recalled how their son was sitting in the car at Washington Lane and Musgrave Street, waiting for his sister to come out of the house, when two boys walked up to the car and just opened fire.

“It has become so commonplace in the city to put up these makeshift memorials,” Johnson-Harrell said, adding that “murder has become a way of life” for many young men in our community.

“We live in war zones,” said Johnson-Harrell, who moved in 2008 to get her sons away from the violence.

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep another mother from feeling this pain, to keep another mother’s child from dying,” she said.

After a prayer service, the group marched in silence from Cliveden Park to the 200 block of East Sharpnack Street, the site of a double shooting.

Around 8:34 p.m. on July 27, Nafis Armstead, 23, and Gerald “Geezy” Jones, 26, were shot multiple times, killing Armstead and seriously injuring Jones, who remains hospitalized.

“Where we stand is sacred ground because innocent blood has been shed here,” said Dr. Dolores McCabe, a retired pastor at Millcreek Baptist Church, at the murder site.

Participants and neighbors said Christian and Muslim prayers to remember the loving husband and father of four young children.

Neighbors Cheryl Dallas, 55, and Nicole Silgh, 38, said Armstead was an approachable and respectful young man.

“He was always kind to everybody,” Dallas said.

One of Armstead’s good friends, Chris Baxter, 22, of East Mt. Airy, said Armstead was a happy outgoing young man who loved his family dearly.

“He put his kids before anything else,” said Hanif Shabazz, another close friend of Armstead.

Participants expressed their thoughts about why they came to the vigil. Many expressed a need to stand in solidarity and bear witness to the violence running rampant in the city.

Julia Bradburd, 81, of Gwynedd, said she had a lot of friends who live in Mt. Airy and wanted to “stand on the side of love.” She commented on the police escort.

“It’s important to be visible,” said Bradburd, who attends the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration at Stenton Avenue and Gorgas Lane with her husband.

Linda Noonan, co-pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, said she was inspired by the amount of people who came out to the prayer vigil.

“They were putting their faith on their feet and standing together with neighbors and families who are losing loved ones,” Noonan said.

Kent Irwin, 63, of East Mt. Airy said people need to mobilize to hold legislatures responsible for gun laws that make sense. He said the NRA has many politicians in its “back pocket.”

McCabe asked attendees to act and remember the words of Dr. King, “Let us begin, let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world.”