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Praying for a safer community

Nearly 200 people stood under the magnolia trees at Railroad Park Monday afternoon for the first of what organizers hope will become a monthly tradition.

People came from many faiths, several races, multiple generations and various backgrounds. But they shared one prayer — a safer community.

The goal of the community-wide prayer gathering was to “blend our hearts together in prayer toward a violence-free community,” according to the flyers distributed by members of United in Christ Against Violence.

The half-hour event that began at 5:30 p.m. was held next to Foster’s Cabin beside the railroad track. It began as an idea by friends Shayla Edwards and Erin Smith, who forged their friendship in the days following the murder of Edwards’ 11-year-old son, Austin, a student at Lipsey School, who was killed with seven others May 28, 2017. Her nephew, Jordan Blackwell, was also one of those victims.

Smith, who is on the Brookhaven School District Board of Trustees, is married to one of Edwards’ Ole Brook classmates, Brett Smith. She grew closer to Edwards after Austin’s death as she shared food, fellowship and prayer with the grieving mother.

Edwards said she and Smith shared concerns for Brookhaven and the number of violent crimes that are being committed on a regular basis.

“We were talking, we were praying, we were crying,” Edwards said. “We were thinking about all the violence that was happening in our community and we wanted to make a difference. We didn’t know where to start. We didn’t know how to start. But we knew that something needed to be done for the community that we live in.”

They joined other women with a similar vision for the community to form United in Christ Against Violence.

It’s a group of about a dozen women who want better for their home.

“We are raising our children, our nieces, our nephews. A lot of us are educators. And we wanted to start somewhere,” she told the crowd. “We are from different neighborhoods, different churches, but we wanted to do something for our community, so with your help we have this today.”

Edwards brought Smith to the mic to share a few words and the scripture that inspires their prayer task force.

“We learn as Christians if you have the faith of a mustard seed, God can provide miracles and he can move mountains so we pray that this is just the beginning,” Smith said. “We hope this is a community in action for one another.”

She read from Philippians 2:1-11 about being likeminded and one in spirit and to value others above self.

“This prayer task force is inclusive,” she said. “It’s a diverse set of believers who desire to blend our community together and attempt to serve alongside with all of you to promote a violence-free community.”

Smith said United in Christ Against Violence is a grassroots effort “to be an extra layer of support for our local law enforcement and city, county and state officials.”

It is an action-oriented taskforce designed to “serve and be heard.”

The group is asking people to join them on the second Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at Railroad Park for a half hour of prayer and a time of getting to know each other.

“We know that this is just the beginning of something,” she said.

With 20 minutes left before the end of the event, Smith opened the group prayer and invited anyone to add to it, with Edwards’ father, Rev. Eugene Edwards, closing it at 6 p.m. Twenty people including Brookhaven Police Chief  Kenneth Collins accepted that invitation.

“God, look at your children,” he said, looking at the people standing together in a circle, many holding hands as they prayed. “Look at all your kids, God. Look Devil, you can get out. You can get up and get out of Brookhaven, like right now.”

After Rev. Edwards brought the prayer to a close, a voice in the crowd began singing “What a Mighty God We Serve” and several others joined in for a chorus before the crowd dispersed.