Its leaders found many partners who agreed to help on this first event, one Center of Life hopes to turn into an annual activity. Donna Smith, who leads the organization’s social justice resource center, said leaders offered brief periods of prayer at seven different locations through the community, and she encouraged residents attending to offer reflections and remembrances of those who were lost to gun violence in Hazelwood last summer and in years past.
The timing is important as schools will soon close and summer begins, she said. Smith also wants residents to reach out to elected officials, especial state legislators, where bills on gun safety — notably one on safe storage of firearms — will soon be before them for discussion and votes. State House Democrats passed two bills last month, permitting authorities to temporarily seize firearms and expanding background checks for gun buyers. Republicans opposed the bills. One other did not pass, and a fourth did not come up for a vote.
It’s an issue of extreme importance to her. “Our community was affected by gun violence in so many ways,” Smith said. “We lost some kids who have gone through our program to gun violence.” She said she couldn’t even begin to count all the young people she has known or heard about who have died in such killings.
“I want to see a world where children are protected from gun violence and adults are held accountable to make that happen,” Smith said in a news release promoting the event. “I want lawmakers to engage with community members to support healthy, safe communities that are free from gun violence.”
While this is the first event on this date, it is not the first activity Center of Life has held regarding gun violence. “We did an exhibit with Carnegie Mellon [University] and mothers in the neighborhood a few summers back called ‘I Live, You Lived, What Did We Miss,’ Smith said, which included stories of how lives are affected when a family member dies in a shooting.
Another, a lunch with the Monongahela Marsden Block Association, a group that came together decades ago, featured speakers affected by gun violence. It’s part of an overreaching goal for the Center of Life.
“The more we talk about it, communicate with others [helps],” Smith said. The message to convey: “You may be angry for a moment, [but] that gun violence act changes lives forever. That is our focus. Gun violence is not the answer. We have resources we can connect you with that can help you solve the problem you are facing [instead].”
Smith and her husband, Pastor Tim Smith, who is the executive director of Center of Life, led two of the prayer sessions. The other leaders included Terri Shields, Jada House International founder, which is based in Hazelwood; Andrea Betts Coleman, founder of the Garden of Different Abilities; Neil Martin, business and compliance manager, Center of Life; DaVonne Fuller, family engagement manager, Center of Life; and the Rev. Michael Murray, a longtime Hazelwood resident and local pastor.
Betts Coleman waited patiently for participants in the cool library, sitting in the meeting room with a binder of materials that included her PUSH, Prayers Up Sends Hope, curriculum. “I’ve been working for years on change in Hazelwood,” she said. “With gun violence, I am here today to pray and share these words with anyone who has a resolution to get better with the violence. I don’t want them to use the gun on themselves or another person. I will pray with anyone [to avoid that].”
Smith said the amount of people who had come to the various locations at midday pleased her, and she deemed the event a success. The day culminated with participants heading to a Ceasefire Pennsylvania rally on the North Side.
It is important to Smith and the others to honor those who lost their lives, and the Center of Life currently has an exhibit on grief at its building, created by community engagement specialist Kyimi Knox, some Hazelwood residents and others from nearby neighborhoods in partnership with Arts Excursions Unlimited. Many broken bowls reconstructed into something new feature in the display of work.
“It deals with coping with grief, especially when losing someone to gun violence,” Smith said.