By Matthew Koehler
In the late afternoon sun on Nov. 2, while revelers were still celebrating the Nat’s up by the National Mall, a more somber crowd gathered outside Second Union Baptist Church on Delaware Ave., SW. The assembled group of community members and leaders were buzzing about the World Series win, for sure, but everyone present was there for a different reason: to walk for peace.
In recent months, there has been an uptick in violence in Southwest, with four young people falling victim to gun violence since Aug. 30. In response to the violence, several pastors and a local ANC Commissioner organized a Peace Walk to show solidarity – a sense of community, the whole community – that people wouldn’t let this violence continue without saying a word.
This Peace Walk was not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last (more on that later), and Pastor Ruth Hamilton of Westminster Church told me that she and Pastor Peter Spann, of Carron Baptist Church, have done these walks before. Rhonda Hamilton, ANC 6D Commissioner, told me about the Orange Hats who did similar walks when she was a kid.
The Nov. 2 Walk was the result of a meeting, organized by Commissioner Hamilton, held back in October. Pastor Ruth told me that: “[Commissioner Hamilton] had called together a meeting of stakeholders, bringing in mental health organizations that have outposts [i]n some of our resident council parts of public housing.” Hamilton also brought together resident council presidents, police, Training Grounds, which works on violence intervention in the neighborhood, and, of course, pastors. During the meeting, they talked about possible responses to the violence, and one of the first steps they felt was necessary was holding a Peace Walk. Another idea they had was to hold a “Safe Place, Safe Space” event for the youth (see Call Out Box).
A diverse crowd of community members gathered outside Second Union, many knew each other and were active in the community, others had never met. There was no particular structure to the Peace Walk, and walkers were told to feel welcome and comfortable to engage in their own way.
After more than 30 people showed up, the walkers formed a circle and Pastors Ruth and Spann, along with Hamilton, offered encouragement and invocations. Hamilton reminded everyone that, “You don’t have to know everybody to tell them you love them,” – a sentiment set the tone for the rest of the walk and the discussions that followed.
“[T]hat it was meaningful to get out of our various buildings and our various houses and get onto the street. To be a diverse crowd from our community,” Pastor Ruth hoped of the walk.
Indeed, as we walked through Greenleaf Gardens, across from the DC Metro Police Dept., Lansburgh Park, and the community garden, is one of the places where violence has occurred. Curious people came out of their homes to chat with us. Pastors Ruth and Spann talked to neighbors, explaining the purpose of the walk. A few people even joined the Walk, if only for a time.
One young man we met at the outset of the walk shouted, “It [the violence] must be stopped!” Another resident leaned her head out of the window and told us with a smile that, “We need peace.”
The nervous energy dissipated as our procession moved down First Street, past the Greenleaf Recreation center. Peace Walkers began talking more with each other and I struck up a conversation with local Deacon, Markus John, who told me the story of how, as a young man, he managed to escape a life of crime and drugs. He felt that getting out into the community and talking to the youth, which he did intermittently while we walked and talked, was one way to reach them. “They need to see us out here,” he told me, “because even if it reaches only one at-risk youth, that will be a life saved from incarceration or death.” Deacon John also explained how young people didn’t just need role models in their lives, they needed opportunities and to see that opportunities do exist outside of selling drugs and violence.
Some of those opportunities, or pathways to those opportunities do exist. A representative of Mayor Bower’s office, who also attended the Walk, explained to me that [the Mayor’s office] is keeping an open dialogue with community organizations, civic associations, community leaders, etc., and as a result of regular conversations with the community they’ve been able to bring District agencies directly to the neighborhood.
“For example, we’ve worked with Ms. Christine Spencer, President of the James Creek Resident Council, with bringing the Department of Employment Services (DOES) and Department of Human Services (DHS) to her bi-monthly food distribution event.”
The Mayor’s office also said this in a statement:
“In October, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the inaugural Safer Stronger DC Fall Crime Prevention Initiative (FCPI), an effort to reduce violent crime in specific neighborhoods throughout the District. The Southwest neighborhood was chosen as a focus neighborhood. During the FCPI, the Metropolitan Police Department will conduct outreach and youth/family programs, implement various policing strategies, and if a crime is committed in that focus area, all law enforcement and community resources will be utilized.
The Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services will continue to work with community leaders, Southwest neighbors, and our partners at MPD’s First District on opportunities to engage all neighbors and bring District agencies and resources to the community.”
At points, the Peace Walk became serious as we stopped at the places where the young adults and kids were killed. There, the group stopped and bowed their heads while one of the pastors said a prayer. The most touching moment of the Peace Walk came when we stopped at the eastern end of Channel Park and the mother of Marquette Harris, one of the victims, came out to talk to the group. “He was a peacemaker. And he was loved by everyone,” she told everyone. Harris’s mother stayed with the Peace Walk until the end, sometimes crying but also smiling a lot and talking to neighbors.
After walking for over an hour, the Peace Walk ended at a chili social (the chili was delicious) at a community center on the second floor of the Syphax Gardens Management Office. Other people from the community who’d seen the Walkers, or joined up along the way, stopped in and had chili, too. People continued to chat and exchange information, and discussed what comes next. Despite the reason for the Peace Walk, neighbors left in good cheer and with a stronger sense of community.
The next Peace Walk will start on Saturday, Dec. 14, at 1 p.m. at St. Matthew’s Church.