Andre and Tailynn Davis sat on the edge of their living-room couch, a box of tissues at arms’ reach. Their bodies were weary, their faces drawn with grief as they joined a Facebook Live broadcast of the Sunday service at the Church of Christian Compassion.
“You are going to have to learn how to forgive people ... ,” said W. Lonnie Herndon, their charismatic pastor, on that Sunday morning in late July. “Pray for those who hurt you.”
Six weeks earlier, on June 7, two men had shot and killed their 21-year-old son, Robert Wood III — police say they wanted his backpack. The Fern Rock couple buried him in his Marine dress blues, his coffin draped with an American flag. At the first blast of a 21-gun salute, Tailynn Davis jumped.
Robert, who had hoped to become a police officer or an FBI agent, was the second child the couple had to bury in less than four years. Two sons lost to gun violence in Philadelphia.
Andre Davis Sr., a church deacon, stared hard at the presentation on Facebook, his elbows propped on his knees, his hands knotted beneath his chin. “Forgiveness doesn’t make the other person right, it makes you free,” Pastor Herndon said. “I want you to forgive the enemy that attacks you.”
A flurry of heart emojis, sent by parishioners from their homes, rose across the Davises’ flat-screen.
Tailynn Davis nodded and wiped a tear from her cheek.
“I want to be able to say, ‘I forgive you,’ ” the mother, a deaconess, said about her son’s killers. “I need God to help me stay at peace and not allow the anger to take over.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” her husband said. “I’m not in the forgiving stage right now. This has taken something out of me.”
For the parishioners of the Church of Christian Compassion in Cobbs Creek, this is a year like no other. Gun violence soars on the very same streets battling the city’s highest rates of coronavirus infections. Injustices that Blacks have endured for decades — systemic racism, police brutality, health-care disparities, a lack of opportunity — are taking center stage all at once, for the entire nation, for the first time ever.
Parishioners did not wait for outside help. It’s outside their church where Black doctors gathered as the virus surged to test residents when lab kits were scarce. To keep Black-owned restaurants afloat, the pastor has selected a different spot each week to blitz with church member business. Almost every other day, food giveaways put canned goods, milk, juices, eggs, and meat into the homes of the hungry. There are nursing home visits, toy drives, and a food truck called “Taste of Compassion” to lift up the neediest among them. Parishioners seek to live their motto, “Stay Relentless.”
The events of the last two months, since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, give Pastor Herndon hope that this is America’s moment.
“As painful as systemic racism is, and all we have to learn from George Floyd, and everything we’re going through with COVID, we are getting to the root of the issues,” he said. “I really believe this is the moment in time that will forever change the way we live, the way we see each other, the way we interact with one another.
“This is the time.”
If not for her faith, Tailynn Davis said she’d likely curl into a ball. “Mornings are the worst,” she said. “I just begin to cry and I go into the bathroom so I don’t wake my husband.”
Once composed, she dresses for her medical-records job at Abington-Jefferson Health. She’s been in her son’s bedroom just once since his death — to lie down in his unmade bed. His green satin graduation sash from the Philadelphia Military Academy still hangs from the door frame.
Robert was the “nerdy” type, his mom said. His first big word, at age 3, was actually, which he drew out, ac-tual-ly, and used into adulthood to start his declarations.
As a teen, Robert wore owlishly large eyeglasses, though he had perfect vision. He just liked the look. His favorite singer was the late Bill Withers, and he walked around the house singing: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”
In the summer, Davis sent him to a Jewish sleepaway camp in Upstate New York. He didn’t care that he was the only Black kid. He wasn’t much for the sun or the outdoors, so he took up home economics. Once home, he’d whip up pancakes for the family for breakfast. And dinner.
Tailynn, 48, had met her husband, Andre, in church when Robert was 8 or 9. As their relationship grew serious, Andre invited them to his apartment for a meal. Robert, then 10, said “Hi,” and then pulled the man aside.
“Are you going to marry my mom?” he asked. Andre’s eyes widened. “That’s when I knew he was unique. I looked at him and said, ‘Young boy, you’re going to have to ask your mother that.’ ”
From then on, Andre called him “Young Boy” and grew to love Robert as his own.
His friends called him “Roberto” because he loved languages — Spanish, Italian, French. While the neighborhood kids played Little League, he took up chess. He had a poker-straight walk, shoulders back, long before he joined the military.
At 14, he became a cadet with the Philadelphia Police Explorers program. After high school, he went to Arcadia University in Glenside to study criminal justice. During his sophomore year, he joined the Marines. Unable to swim, he passed the test for recruits by floating to shore.
On his last day, a Sunday, Robert headed for the front door at about 6:30 p.m. “You going out, son?” Tailynn Davis asked. “Be careful.”
Robert was 4 when his older brother, Lamar, then 14, was robbed at gunpoint while walking home from a friend’s house one night. The robbers took Lamar’s new Rocawear coat and told him to run for his life.
After that, Tailynn Davis drove Robert to school every morning until ninth grade, when he begged her to let him catch the bus.
Robert’s parents said they still don’t know why he was in North Philadelphia, roughly five miles from his home the night of June 7. He walked down Berks Street, near 23rd, blasting tunes on his Bose earbuds.
He didn’t hear two men approach from behind.
“We are living in unprecedented times,” Pastor Herndon said, walking the church halls after fine-tuning his sermon that morning in late July. The Church of Christian Compassion, modern and sprawling, is an anchor for 5,400 parishioners. “It seems like every day we wake up, we’re being bombarded again with some blow, not only to our community but to our country as well.”
Dressed in a black “God Is Dope” T-shirt, workout pants, and an athletic jacket, the trim, bearded pastor entered the two-story sanctuary. On this Sunday, like every one since the virus spread, only 20 or so parishioners were seated, spaced among the wooden pews. Hundreds of others tuned in online.
Herndon prayed for the church’s 61-year-old associate pastor, Kevin Padgett. In early April, Padgett had contracted the coronavirus and since then has been in the fight of his life.
Padgett fell ill around the same time as Keith Ashton, a minister in training.
When Ashton’s girlfriend, Gloria Jackson, arrived at his Grays Ferry home on April 5, she found the burly poet, musician, and photographer sprawled on the couch, too weak to utter more than a few words. Intense heat radiated from his hand.
She offered him bites of chicken and sips of herbal tea. Even if he’d had an appetite, his sense of taste was gone. He drifted off to sleep between coughing fits that rattled his lineman’s frame.
The staff at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital admitted him about 11 that night. She stayed in her car in the lot until 3 a.m. “I didn’t want to leave him,” she said.
Jackson spoke with him by phone every day until April 9, when he was placed on a ventilator. Doctors gave him just a 10% chance of survival.
“But I was thinking there would be a miracle.”
In Philadelphia, Black people account for nearly 60% of coronavirus hospitalizations, though they make up only 44% of the population. They also experience higher rates of heart disease, lung conditions, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses that can make the virus more threatening.
Ashton, 59, checked several boxes.
He suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate that can increase risk of strokes, heart failure, and other complications. He weighed around 300 pounds and his feet were often excruciatingly painful from diabetic neuropathy.
For 38 years, he’d worked as a mental health technician in the psychiatric unit at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital in Cobbs Creek. Like other essential workers, he didn’t have the option to work from home.
At work, his nickname was “Preach.”
“He had wisdom. He was a natural counselor,” Jackson said. “He would sing to his patients. When a coworker lost her son, he wrote a song for her. He was that kind of guy.”
A divorced father of two, Ashton built an elaborate playhouse made of wood for his children, recalled his son, Johnathan Ashton, now 38. His son remembers listening to his father play an audiotape of the book Think and Grow Rich while driving around in his beige Thunderbird.
Stressing the importance of education, Ashton created the “Daddyo” game. Friends and family huddled in his living room while he quizzed them on math and literature, then rewarded winners with prizes.
When Jackson called Ashton at the hospital, the minister in training prayed, between labored breaths, for other patients suffering from the virus.
On April 27, doctors told the family his condition was deteriorating. That day he coded and they brought him back with defibrillator paddles. They used the paddles one more time, then the family said no more.
Jackson suited up in protective gear to see him one last time. Tears rolled down her face as she looked at his still body with tubes still threaded through his nose and mouth.
“I thanked God for his life,” she said. “I thanked him for touching so many people in his life.”
Philadelphia Police Officer Angel Delgado sat at the back of the church, as he does practically every Sunday.
Pastor Herndon made a point of acknowledging the officer. “Thank you for wearing the uniform, having the heart,” Herndon told Delgado, a 12th Police District officer. He asked Delgado to stand. “I really feel like Compassion is out there on the streets with you.”
It’s a fine line that Herndon walks. Herndon and church members work closely with the 18th Police District. Officers donate canned goods for Compassion’s food giveaways. Compassion hosts the district’s monthly community meetings. Together they organize toy drives for children.
At the same time, Herndon applauds the Black Lives Matter movement and denounces police brutality. “Marching and protesting is just a small leg in the race,” he said recently. “We need to sit at the table and talk about the years of systemic racism that has taken place in our city, our state, and around the country.”
Several parishioners say they’ve felt marked by police over the years.
John Taylor, 49, of Germantown, drives a luxury black Cadillac XTS for his job ferrying executives around, mostly to and from airports. “Here I am — 6′7, a tall Black guy driving a black Cadillac in a white neighborhood. All three are strikes. Not good. Not good. Not good,” he said.
Taylor has been mostly sidelined because of the pandemic. His wife, Stephanie, lost her job managing a restaurant.
But when he picked up clients around Bryn Mawr, he counted seven times in two years when police on the Main Line stopped him. He got pulled over in North Philly and Germantown too, just not as often.
“I’d be at a stop sign and they’d say I didn’t come to a complete stop. Or they said I made an illegal turn or was going five miles over the speed limit. ...
“At the end of the day, I was driving while Black in a white neighborhood,” he said.
As Stephanie put it, “Our color is a weapon to them.”
John Taylor knew to always comply with the officers, offering his license, registration, and insurance card.
“You do what you have to do to stay alive. You shouldn’t have to feel that way. You shouldn’t have to feel like this could be it,” he said.
Lately, he said, he’s had to hold himself in check. “When you see your race attacked by another race, it’s easy to jump there, that all police officers are bad. But you can’t judge people that way, no matter how many white people shoot Black people.”
Seeing so many white people out there protesting, holding Black Lives Matter signs, “it helped me not to go there,” he said.
“It calmed my spirit.”
The day Robert Wood III was killed, Pastor Herndon and other church leaders had held a “Calling All Men” prayer walk. Hundreds of church members, mostly Black men, gathered at 61st and Cedar and marched to 60th and Market.
They sounded a call for change. A need to build one another up, create economic opportunities, invest in young people. End gun violence.
About 9:30 p.m., two detectives rang the Davises’ doorbell. The couple had just settled into bed.
“There was a shooting,” one detective said in the middle of the living room. They showed the couple a photo of Robert from his state ID.
“There was a shooting and what?” Tailynn Davis asked. “Where is he? What hospital is he at?” Pinpricks of panic surged through her body.
The officers stood silently, their eyes barely able to meet hers.
“He didn’t make it?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” one said.
The Davises would learn that two men came up behind Robert and scuffled over his backpack. Robert had a .22-caliber handgun, which the reservist in the artillery unit was licensed to carry.
One of the men got hold of Robert’s weapon and shot him in the chest and back. Blood flowed onto the sidewalk, still warm from the early evening sun.
At the time, the alleged killer, whom police identified as Cornell Horsey, 25, was out on bail awaiting trial on gun and drug possession charges from 2019, court records show.
One bullet struck an accomplice, identified as Devante Bennett, 23, in the arm. Police say Bennett and Horsey ran but not before they locked eyes with 30-year-old Raheen Myers, who was headed home to his wife and newborn baby when he saw the robbery.
Myers rushed to Robert’s side. When officers arrived, he helped lift the Marine into the back of a patrol car, and cradled the stranger’s head on his lap on the way to Temple University Hospital.
Robert looked up at Myers. “Tell my family I love them,” he said.
Had her son been killed in action, “it would have been a little better to understand and accept because it was his job ... ,” Tailynn Davis said. “But when it happens out here in the street where you live, when you’re just walking, that’s hard to accept. That’s hard to understand.”
On June 15, Andre Davis posted on his Facebook page: “Another one of my boys we had to lay to rest.”
His oldest son — Andre Jr. — was 33 when he died. He had enlisted in the Army at 18 and reported for duty on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He served in Iraq during the Gulf War. Back home in October 2016, he was shot to death while breaking up a fight. His two children are now 10 and 18.
After the murder, Andre Sr. struggled to do his job as a corrections officer at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County. Every inmate Davis booked reminded him that his son’s killer was still not brought to justice.
To Andre and Tailynn, the gun violence that stole their sons is rooted in fear, jealousy, and society’s failure to reckon with racism and inequality.
“When I say these kids are angry — these kids are angry,” Andre Davis said. “And they take their anger out on what’s in front of them.”
On July 3, about 1:30 a.m., almost a month after the murder, Raheen Myers walked out of his North Philadelphia apartment to fetch milk for his baby girl, Ayah.
A man shot and killed him before he could make it back from the store.
Homicide Capt. Jason Smith said detectives are investigating whether Myers was killed because “he was a cooperating witness” to Robert Wood’s murder.
Myers’ wife, Kimani Williams, said she’s sure of it. “They executed him, from saying what happened. That’s how that goes,” she said. Bennett has been charged with Robert’s murder; Horsey, 25, remains at large.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Williams, 28, cried as she said she still sleeps in one of his unwashed T-shirts and can’t bear to throw out his last unfinished cup of coffee.
She’s pregnant with their second child. In addition to Ayah, she has three other kids, ages 4, 5, and 6. Growing up in Philadelphia, she’s watched loved ones die all around her. Her boyfriend was shot to death when she was only 13. Her brother was next. She desperately wants to move away, she said.
“I want my kids to have a successful life,” she said. “I don’t want them to be introduced to drugs, guns.”
Andre and Tailynn Davis have started a fund — for children whose parents have been killed by gun violence. Maybe, Tailynn says, that is God’s purpose behind the pain of losing Robert.
They met Myers for the first time at Robert’s vigil. The man told them what he had done for their son and he relayed his final words.
“He died like a soldier,” Andre Davis said from his living-room couch, a high school graduation photograph of Robert resting on a nearby mantel.
“Yup,” his wife replied. “No tears in his eyes. Just looked up and said, ‘Tell my family I love them.’ What more can we ask for from a fine young man?”