ST. LOUIS • With each name, he picked up a candle and blew out the flame.
The Rev. Rodrick Burton moved along the front of the sanctuary of New Northside Church on Monday, snuffing out the candles as his wife, Carlotta Cheers-Burton, spoke the names into the microphone.
“Those lives are gone,” Burton said.
They were 52 candles in all — each with the name of a person who had died from violence in St. Louis this year. Heads in the sanctuary shook as the list was read. Some hands raised in prayer.
More than 75 people filled the wooden pews for a Memorial Day service of a different kind. The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition was calling for prayer to end violence in the city. There were wives, such as Lisa Jackson, who’d lost husbands. And there were mothers, such as Carla Austin, who had come very close. Her son was shot 18 times, she said, but he survived. Now he’s trying to learn to speak and walk again.
“When your child is laying there, you want someone to speak up,” Austin said, gripping the lectern. “It was so easy for me to be quiet when it hadn’t happened to me.”
The call to end the violence united many, including people from beyond St. Louis, who filled the pews at New Northside. A Catholic friar from Imperial sat in the front row and led them in prayer. So did a minister from Cape Girardeau, as well as pastors of more than a half-dozen area churches.
“Every year in the summer months in St. Louis, we see a horrible trend,” Burton said. “That trend is violence. Starting right now, we’re asking the city to be united in prayer. Pray that we have peace.”
Behind him was the row of candles.
Sharif Allen, 21, walked to the front of the sanctuary. The last two names were those of cousins of his — two of the most recent loved ones he’s lost to violence in St. Louis.
There have been many.
Last year, another cousin was gunned down on his own birthday. And in 2010, Allen stood on a front porch on Theodore Avenue with friends. A gray Taurus sped by, and someone inside opened fire.
His friend Courtney Cotton was shot in the neck and died.
Allen’s first memory is of attending his uncle’s funeral at age 2. He believes he witnessed the fatal shooting.
“The pain never goes away, but prayer makes it bearable,” Allen said.
He asked for prayer for a better education system. Too many children in St. Louis get to middle school and can barely read, he said. Violence comes easier, he said, than getting the skills needed to thrive in society.
“If you’re in school and you don’t understand what’s going on, you’re going to resort to violence,” Allen said.
It was a statement that caused many to nod in agreement.
Before the prayer service began, several participants said they were concerned that the violence would escalate with students being out of school.
“It’s very important for the faith community to be attentive in respect to the needs of our young people,” said Javier Orozco, director of Hispanic ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “Many of our young people in urban settings are the direct victims of violence. Our churches, our faith community can be those places where young people can come to forgive.”
The Week of Prayer to Curb Violence will continue with events throughout the week. Today through Friday, the Clergy Coalition is inviting members of all faiths to pray at noon for a reduction in violence. At 9 p.m. Friday, a citywide prayer walk is scheduled at St. Peter AME Church, 4730 Margaretta Avenue. And at 5 p.m. Sunday, an interfaith prayer service is scheduled at Washington Tabernacle, 3200 Washington Boulevard.