Community service offers prayers for hope, healing

Published 12:56 am Sunday, December 23, 2018


NATCHEZ — Approximately 150 people gathered Saturday morning at Zion Chapel AME Church to pray for unity and an end to a spate of violence that has plagued Natchez and Adams County with 14 murders in the past year.

The Rev. Scott Green of Natchez First Assembly of God offered the opening prayer, but before beginning the prayer, he told the gathered group about a recent experience he had in Natchez.

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“Last week, it became very real to me, the problem in our community,” Green said. “As I was walking home around 10 o’clock at night a week ago this past Thursday, I was in the middle of the parking lot when a truck was driving by, and I heard what sounded like car backfire, and I stopped in the middle of the parking lot and I turned and I looked as the truck drove by.”

Green said he heard a second backfire.

“I suddenly realized that it was not backfire exhaust,” Green said. “I saw gunfire coming out the passenger window aimed right at me. I froze, and before my mind could even realize what was happening, there was a third shot as the truck went on it continued.”

Green said the experience left his family and himself shaken.

“It was the following night I read about the man who was murdered in our community,” Green said. “We have a lot to be thankful for. We have blessings that we will always give credit to our Lord for. I’m grateful that I’m here today. I’m also grateful that I can lead in this particular prayer for peace and unity in our community.”

Natchez Mayor Darryl Grennell told attendees that included elected officials, clergy members, residents and victims’ family members he called the prayer meeting in an effort to bring unity to the community and to help end the violence.

“After the last homicide when the police chief called me to inform me that we had another homicide here in the City of Natchez, I immediately said this community needs to come together for prayer,” Grennell said, adding the Rev. Birdon Mitchell of Zion AME Church agreed to host the meeting. “We’re not just praying for the recent crimes that have occurred, but I’m requesting that we pray for all those families out there that have been impacted.”

In addition, Grennell said the group should pray for the nation.

“What goes on in D.C. trickles down,” Grennell said. “Pray for what happens on a state level, and of course, pray for our local elected officials.”

Grennell encouraged people to continue to pray for unity and peace even after the prayer meeting.

“I’m a firm believer that a family that prays together stays together,” Grennell said, “but the way I see Natchez, Adams County, we’re one family. We’re one family. It doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t matter what your socio-economic status is. We are one family, and we need to pray for togetherness, for unity.”

Grennell also asked for continued prayer for members of law enforcement, including members of the Natchez Police Department and the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten told the group of attendees that the past year has been trying for the city of Natchez and Adams County.

“Together we stand, but divided we fall,” Patten said, adding that everyone is looking for immediate solutions to the crime problem. “But, right now is not how we got here today.”

Patten said people are too quick to say problems in other parts of town or other schools are not their own problems. He said the problems are everyone’s problem.

“When we go to our corners, and we sit, and we think that’s because the apartment is over here, it’s not over there,” Patten said. “Just because education fails over here, not over there, when you leave mental health unchecked, and we just decide to just protect our own. When the judicial system is unbalanced and what goes for this group doesn’t go for that group, what you do is, you take away hope from people. And once people lose hope, they live by any means necessary.”

Patten said the crime is physical, but the community needs to search for spiritual solutions.

“If you can’t see that this combination of things all over the years has deteriorated and affected our society, you’ve got your blinders on,” Patten said. “I’m glad to see you all because it is going to take every aspect and every single person in this community to reverse what you see happening right now.”

Patten said recent violent crimes are among isolated groups that are not targeting others.

“But it was all of us who chose not to do things, the small things,” Patten said, “that have grown to be big. The mayor has called for unity; the police chief has been saying it since day 1. I have as well. It took something drastic to get to this but once we solve these murders, and we will, myself and the police chief and every other organization that we’ve reached out to, we don’t need to lose that unity in this city.”

Patten said the police department and sheriff’s office are not only working together but also are working with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, the U.S. Marshal Service to solve the cases.

Then, Patten challenged attendees to get involved for the long term.

“We need you guys to speak to not only to the people in your community about stepping up ‘seeing something, saying something,’” Patten said, in reference to a campaign encouraging people to report crimes and potential crimes.

Patten said the “See Something, Say Something” campaign is getting results, “but we don’t need to focus just on that, we need to focus on the long term of how not to get back there. In order to do that, we don’t need to be divided over school systems. We can’t say this is your kids and not ours because when those problems blow up, it’s everybody’s problem as you can see right now.”

Patten said it is important for people to act now to keep the crime from getting worse than it is and spreading to other parts of the community.

“A lot of things have been uncovered during these times,” Patten said. “The blinders are off, and I’m looking forward to where Natchez can go from this point on.”

Patten urged people not to stay in their corners and called on community leaders to work with a sense of urgency to help when they hear of potential problems within the community.

“Everything we need to deal with these problems in our community is at our disposal right now,” Patten said. “The problem is we need those working in unison.”

Patten said people who are negative about efforts to solve the problems need to offer solutions.

“Tell them if you’re not bringing a solution with a problem, leave that negative stuff behind,” Patten said. “I’m only going to be dealing with the people who are moving forward in trying to resolve things. We have no time to waste on that other stuff.”

Patten also urged people to contact their legislators about funding for the state’s crime lab that has a backlog of weapons that are holding up investigations in cases.

“Myself and the police chief have several weapons up there right now that could tie people into these murders,” Patten said, “but the problem is they’re backlogged… Call your legislators and ask them to help us put an end to these wars between these feuding communities. Put them on notice.”

Patten referenced House Bill 585, a measure that would reform prison-sentencing guidelines in the state, which Patten said he believes would curtail law enforcement efforts.

Chief Walter Armstrong also told attendees the backlog at the state crime lab is hindering efforts to close cases and said when an officer delivered confiscated weapons to the state crime lab last week and requested the guns be processed quickly state crime lab officials told him they are dealing with the largest caseload they’ve had in years with more than 400 murders statewide this year, including cases in Jackson, Tupelo, Brookhaven and Vicksburg, in addition to Natchez.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for over 35 years, and I’ve never seen a murder rate where it is today,” Armstrong said. “We have to turn this around.”

Armstrong said making arrests and longer prison terms are not the answer, citing recent cases in which offenders were sentenced to more than 200 combined years in prison for an October 2017 shooting incident that killed a man.

“Yet the carnage continues,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong said he believes the crime problem stems from a lack of education, poverty and lack of parental involvement.

Armstrong said the police department arrested a 13-year-old on Friday night with a group of teenagers attempting to break into vehicles and the police and sheriff’s office worked through the night Friday patrolling a so-called “red party” in town because they had heard violence could occur.

Armstrong said he hears people discussing “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.”

“It’s time to put actions to those words and let’s see how we can really prove to society that all lives matter,” Armstrong said, urging people to go into the communities that are experiencing problems. “Connect with those parents, with those young people.”

Rallies on courthouse steps won’t change things, Armstrong said.

“Our problems are confined to a small part of Natchez and those are the ones we need to reach,” Armstrong said, challenging people to find ways to reach out to the community.

“Let them know there is more to life than pulling a gun and putting it to someone’s head,” Armstrong said. “It doesn’t make them a man or a woman.”

Armstrong said the measure of a person’s heart is exemplified by kind deeds.

“We need kind deeds,” Armstrong said, citing efforts within the police department to reach out to the community, including Shop with a Cop Christmas programs.

“We cannot post an officer at every household, at every street with a gun in order to make a difference,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got to continue to pray for unity. We’ve got to continue to reach out to these young people and let them know that they are on the slippery slope, and we don’t want to see them fall.

“There are only two ways out of this situation that they are currently facing and that is a pair of handcuffs and a graveyard. We don’t want that. I believe that we can save these young people, but it is going to take all of us working together regardless of race, color or creed. It’s going to take unity, and we can do it, ladies and gentlemen. We can do it.”

Tony Fields, Zion Chapel music director, sang during the service and Darrell Day, director of music ministry at First Presbyterian Church played the piano; and Clifton Marvel, pastor of Greater Macedonia Baptist Church offered a prayer for community leaders.

Linda Fox, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, led a prayer for families of victims that included Cassandra Jones, mother of Makailuis Johnson, 19, who was murdered as he sat in his car early morning Dec. 15 on East Stiers Lane.

“I enjoyed the service,” Jones said. “It will make a difference in the community.”

Jones said she is working within her community to help end the violence, communicating with neighbors.

A fund is set up with Bateaste Memorial Funeral Home, 329 Lower Woodville Road, Natchez, MS 39120, to help bury her son.