“We decided we were going to start prayers on the streets for victims of violence,” said Rev. Bruce Jones of Southside United Methodist Church about vigils that began in 2016. “Actually for people who had been murdered on the streets of Jacksonville.”
Vigil participants from his church became overwhelmed by the number of homicides taking place in the city. They started standing on street corners, alleys, next to abandoned houses—wherever the murders took place—only days removed from gunshots or other violence.
|A.J. Jordan is vice president of the Jacksonville chapter for MAD DADS. The non-profit organization began in 1989, and today has more than 25 chapters in 15 states.|
With each vigil, there were only the flickering flames of candles in the summer nights and softly spoken prayers for those who had been lost.
“We had heard about a young woman’s body that had been found in a very industrial part of town,” Jones said. “That’s when I met A.J.”
The reference was to A.J. Jordan, a resident of the inner city and vice president of a Jacksonville chapter called MAD DADS. It’s a proactive organization initially started by African-American men working to stop crime, drug use and gangs in the inner city. He describes it as a Christian organization that took him away from just donating on a plate on Sunday mornings.
His cell phone stores the names of homicide victims in his neighborhoods. “Just brings it to reality that these people are gone,” he said. “Mostly because of some senseless crime.”
According to the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office, 2016 has seen a record pace for homicides, with 56 in the first six months alone. January was the deadliest with 15 killed.
Pastor Bruce met up with MAD DADS and 250 motorcycle riders on Sept. 10 for an event called Peace Ride for Life. The group, somewhat intimidating to him at first in their leathers and chains, paraded 60-miles through neighborhoods where many of these crimes occurred, he said.
The cyclists—arriving from Atlanta, Charleston and dozens of other communities—make it an annual ride, calling attention to statistics having names and showing others there are way too many homicides on these streets.
|Southside UMC started candle light vigils at the scenes of homicides in Jacksonville neighborhoods in 2016. Church volunteers participating refer to the group as S.T.O.P., Standing Together on Prayer.|
MAD DADS also goes door-to-door handing out flyers with crime stopper numbers, according to Jordan. The high-crime neighborhoods often find residents in fear of being labelled a “snitch.” They fear for their own lives and adhere to a “code of silence.”
“If the community is not speaking up, our hands become tied,” he said. “If police go in after a killing and there’s 20 people standing in the street…they saw the shooter and know the shooter. What can the police do if they’re not talking?”
It’s deeply compelling and meaningful to walk with them,” said Pastor Jones about MAD DADS.
He remembered a 22-month-old killed in what is termed in law enforcement as a “drive-by,” the young infant the victim of a random act that was likely gang or drug-related.
“We went to walk on the east side of Jacksonville, which is really a tough, tough neighborhood. You know it was eye-opening for my church members and it was eye-opening for me,” he said.
“To witness what is everyday life for these people that we just don’t understand. We have no conception of the environment these children are growing up in.
“We talk a good game about justice and reconciliation, but then you go out and walk the streets and knock on doors, and you have a much more personal experience of it. That has been a real blessing to our church,” Pastor Bruce said.
“One of the primary pieces of being a follower of Jesus is helping to bring light into the darkness,” said Rev. Jay Therrell, superintendent of the North East District, referring to scripture from John, Chapter 1. “And, I think the church needs to be in those neighborhoods, because I think the folks there feel the church has forgotten them.”
MAD DADS, working without a budget for years, relies on volunteers. Jordan would like to involve more churches and faith-based initiatives, adding that “it has been a struggle.
“It makes a difference when the community sees churches involved,” he said. “A lot of folks here think churches only want you to come to them. They give you a quick little sermon, they take your money and they’re gone.”
|One of the many challenges in fighting crime in inner city neighborhoods, is getting residents to break the so-called "code of silence."|
But Jordan also spoke of Jones and his fellow church members coming into the neighborhoods: “White people standing on a corner in a black community” praying for them.
“It’s very encouraging. It gives the community hope that the church cares…somebody comes to you and takes your hand and prays for you by name,” he said. “There’s something special about that.” He concedes the world will never be free of crime, but he thinks people reaching out, remembering those lost and trying to make things safer will change things.
“I’m no hero,” Jordan said. “I’m just trying to do what God wants me to do. To help these families as much as I can.”
Rev. Juana Jordan, a pastor at Southside, participated in one of the candlelight vigils following the death of a young teen in the city’s Lakeshore neighborhood. She hopes to start a new kind of church that is multiethnic near Jacksonville’s Urban Core, an area close to tough neighborhoods. It is also part of what some term a renaissance for the area, as young professionals move toward urban housing.
“The church can reach out into depressed neighborhoods and provide the bread and water and light of Christ they so desperately need,” she said. “I think it starts with building relationships and showing that we do, indeed, care about them and their welfare.”
As winter in the south begins, the flames of candles from street corner vigils will be lit again. But in this season, motorcycle peace rides parading past wood-framed houses and graffiti covered walls have already brought smiles to children’s faces. For many, it’s a form of hope that never existed in their world before.
“So often we hear about people who have been victimized,” Pastor Bruce said. “But there’s also people saying, we’re going to do something about this.”
He described the community gatherings with MAD DADS like the “Rebel Alliance in Star Wars,” with whites and blacks, bikers in leather and church pastors and police and city councilmen unifying. “But we were of one purpose,” he added. “I was like, this is remarkable. It’s very energizing. It’s very positive.”
--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference.