At the Crossroads: To ‘Change Our Streets’
As part of an ongoing series exploring worship east of the river I joined a March 13 “Stop the Violence Prayer March and Rally” at a busy Southeast crossroads. This prayer event honored the memories of Ivy Tonett Smith and Charnice Milton, shot to death in separate incidents at the same intersection, and called for “unified community response.”
Such gatherings can be pro forma or they can be powerful moments of mourning and reflection, important in community-building. This one inspired genuine prayer and tears.
At this writing the District has suffered additional homicides since March 13, including another in a busy transit spot. Each death leaves an irreparable hole in the lives of loved ones. Each contributes, moreover, to a network of cracks in the city’s life. Opportunities to respond as part of a community are crucial to the health of the District. As Psalm 30 suggests: Does joy come in the morning, where weeping has not tarried for the night? Can we dance together, if we have not yet joined in lament?
Naylor Road SE is the borderline between Ward 8 to the east, and Ward 7 to the west. The intersection of Naylor and Alabama Avenue SE is a busy commercial area. On one corner DC Scholars Stanton Elementary serves nearly 600 students in preK-3 through fifth grade. Many popular bus routes, including several that carry passengers across the river, stop at this nexus.
At the bus stop on the west side of Naylor at Alabama, when the street was filled with people, Charnice Milton, age 27, a long-time contributor to this publication, was shot to death on May 27, 2015. Her murder remains unsolved. At the bus stop across the street Ivy Tonett Smith, age 39, was shot to death at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon, March 6, 2016. Police believe she was not an intended target. Charnice was a colleague whose voice is still sorely missed at Capital Community News. Ivy, a stranger. Like me and so many others, each was bus rider, just going about their ordinary business.
Less than a mile away from the shootings is East Washington Heights Baptist Church (EWHBC). Members of the church knew Milton. Reverend Damon Dozier, EWHBC’s social justice pastor, was nearby at the time of the more recent shooting and helped assist one of the victims. Many church members have experienced incidents of violence over the years, some on the property of the church.
More than half of EWHBC’s members live in the vicinity of the church, according to Pastor Kip Banks. This is unusual for a DC church. It means that local struggles are experienced differently than in a congregation of many long-distance commuters. And it adds complexity to the crossroads of faith and community need.
Social Justice Ministry
In a telephone interview Rev. Dozier discussed the genesis of the March 13 prayer event and EWHBC’s related plans. EWHBC had been working as a church, in both ad hoc and long-term efforts, on a variety of issues, including economic justice, workforce development, access to healthy food options, and an end to gun violence. There was a sense, however, that “we’re not doing enough to make our voices heard in the social sphere.”
In response, the position of social justice minister was established just a few months ago. After more than 10 years with the church, Rev. Dozier has taken up this post. Along with a committee including Rev. Barbara Johnson-Box and Rev. Elizabeth Wiggins, he seeks a more coordinated “approach to social justice efforts.”
In the spirit of servant leadership Rev. Dozier expects the social justice ministry to be informed by members of the church as well as the wider community. He adds that the community is diverse and that issues facing it are not exclusive to any one population. The effort should involve other faith communities and be “as inclusive and egalitarian as possible,” he explains. “We want to examine the work from a diverse lens.”
The March 13 prayer march and vigil was the first such event of the social justice ministry. Rev. Dozier stresses that he planned it in response to “a combination of things, not just the latest incident.” He called on members of other churches and the wider community to join EWHBC in seeking to “organize a unified community response to gun violence, demand leadership and intervention from elected local officials and law, and take other action.”
Change Our Streets
The march began at EWHBC, 2220 Branch Ave. SE, and concluded on the east side of Naylor Road at Alabama Avenue. Among those sharing prayers at the gathering were Kenneth McClenton, stepfather of Charnice Milton and organizer of the Open Heart/Close Case campaign; Rev. Everette Burwell of Bridge Baptist Church in Ward 8; and Trayon White, long-time advocate for District youth (and Ward 8 DC Council candidate). Due to scheduling conflicts and some confused announcements a number of community members appeared toward the end of the gathering including Rev. Ralph Chittams Sr., long active in Ward 7; Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander; and Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May.
Prayer energy focused on those injured or otherwise affected by shootings, on the families of victims, and on calls for justice. In addition prayers were directed toward all who ride public buses and for the more general needs of the community that works, shops, attends school, and travels through that busy intersection. “Our community has been ravished by violence, which is a clear indication that somehow, somewhere our light is not shining,” said a member of EWHBC at the march’s launch. “God is calling us to ignite ourselves. God is calling us for such a time as this to do whatever we have to do to brighten up the darkest of nights.”
“I appeal to You, who can make a way out of no way,” Rev. Dozier prayed at the bus stop. “I appeal to You, who can change our streets ....”
Contact Rev. Damon A. Dozier, social justice minister, East Washington Heights Baptist Church, at 202-213-9399 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See also EWHBC.org or call 202-582-4811.
Virginia Avniel Spatz participates in a range of Jewish and other worship communities and interfaith efforts. She blogs on faith topics at songeveryday.org.