A small band of churchgoers and community members marched in Richmond’s weekly “Ceasefire walk” against gun violence, earlier this month. When there were cracks in the sidewalk, marchers in the front of the group slowed and yelled, “Be careful!” Younger marchers held out their arms to help elderly participants navigate the terrain. If one member stopped to chat, the whole group waited in solidarity. And every time a driver honked in appreciation from his car, people in the group would whoop and cheer as they held their signs higher.
The group left at dusk from Sion Miracle Church, which is nestled in the northern tip of the Iron Triangle neighborhood. After completing a 10-block loop around the neighborhood, they arrived back at the church. Their chant—and message—was simple: “Ceasefire, Alive and Free.”
In response to gun violence in Richmond, a coalition of faith leaders and community members has organized these evening walks since 2011. They arrange them in concert with local church groups, and they take place in different crime-affected neighborhoods.
Demitrius Burnett, a youth pastor who’s marched since 2014, says walking is a way to advocate for all the city’s youth. “I value the lives of young people whether or not I know them personally,” he said. “Ceasefire gives me an opportunity to advocate for young people who may never enter the doors of my church.”
After witnessing interactions that could’ve turned violent—one between two white police officers and a young black man—during past walks, Burnett also considers marching a potential “means of immediate de-escalation.”
Referring to the interaction between the officers and the young man, Burnett said “it could have been better, but could have been much worse.
“God had us where we were the moment we were,” he said.
On this recent Friday evening, the group moved slowly and stopped frequently, passing out pamphlets with information about jobs and education programs. Members also handed out cards for undocumented residents, with info detailing their rights in case Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents visit their homes or workplace.
Pastor Nathan Pree of Mount Sion church led the procession, chanting into a megaphone with his baritone voice. Every time a car honked in support, a cheer would erupt from the small group.
Barbara Weisman, a former schoolteacher who has been attending the walks for more than five years, said she likes the community spirit.
“We get to know each other and really like each other,” Weisman said. She joked with her fellow marchers. “These people have to put up with me!” she said.
The activists are painfully aware of gun violence in Richmond, particularly the Iron Triangle, which historically has been a high-crime area. In 2016, 24 homicides occurred in Richmond, according to Mayor Tom Butt. Ceasefire counts nine deaths by gun violence so far this year.
Participants are deeply invested in potential solutions.
“No mother should ever have to learn her child has been shot,” said Linda Laskowski, a member of the Unitarian Universalist church and longtime Ceasefire activist.
On the Friday two weeks ago, Pree was recognized for his support of the Ceasefire initiative with a framed letter.
“Faith without works is dead,” said Pree, addressing the small crowd before the walk. “You have got to put your feet on it.”