Donna Henry walked to the church at the end of her street like she does almost every Sunday. It’s been getting harder for her to make it by 10 a.m. now that she, at 64, relies on an oxygen tank. Yet, she always figures out a way to be there.
In the third pew, dressed all in white, Henry clasped her hand around her cane to stand at Zion Baptist Church of Philadelphia alongside about 300 other worshipers.
This particular Sunday, like so many others, she was praying for the safety of her family and the world. But that prayer, this day, held extra meaning.
On Wednesday, her Tioga neighborhood became the site of the largest mass shooting of Philadelphia police officers in decades. Henry saw officers with long guns stationed by the towering church that violent day while her 7-year-old granddaughter was kept shielded on lockdown in a nearby day-care center.
“I sing because I’m happy,” Henry sang Sunday, raising her left hand in the air. She grabbed a tissue out of her pocket to wipe her eyes. “I sing because I’m free.”
Henry grew up in the three-story rowhouse a few doors down from Zion Baptist and still lives there with her daughter and two granddaughters. As a child, she sat in the church with her aunt and was inspired by a pastor known as the “Lion of Zion.” Back then, she couldn’t imagine how often she’d be praying for the victims of mass shootings in America — or that her neighborhood would become the site of one.
Now a young man shy of 30 is leading the historic church. Rev. Chauncey P. Harrison spoke about Wednesday’s violence, during which six police officers were shot, followed the next day by the shooting of five other people two miles away. He implored the members to pray for city residents, the police department and anyone who protects them from harm.
He also called out the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, saying this gun violence is “unacceptable” and he advocated for universal background checks. And only a day later,
“Ultimately we want to pray for our communities,” he said. “But we also want to push our legislators in the Senate and in the House of Representative to bring about gun reform.”
Henry nodded along. She hopes people listen, vote in local elections, and find a way to stop what seems to be never-ending gun violence across Philadelphia. It’s that hope that fuels her to vote in every local, state, and national election and to work the polls.
She was riding SEPTA’s Route 16 bus home from work Wednesday when she overheard someone say a police officer was shot. At first she thought it was false gossip. But then her phone rang.
“'They won’t let me get Amaya out of day care,'” she recalled her daughter saying. Their neighborhood was on lockdown, her granddaughter out of reach.
She prayed on the bus, asking God to handle whatever was happening in Tioga.
Police have identified the gunman as Maurice Hill, 36, a man with a long history of drug and weapons offenses, and armed that evening, they say, with an AR-15 rifle. As the number of wounded police officers grew in what became a 7½-hour standoff, so did national attention. The confrontation would finally end just after midnight following lengthy negotiations between Hill and Police Commissioner Richard Ross, District Attorney Larry Krasner and a lawyer who once represented Hill, Shaka M. Johnson, and minutes after police fired teargas into the rowhouse on the 3700 block of North 15th Street.
As the 16 bus drove up Broad, Henry heard the police sirens and helicopters buzzing overhead. Then she saw the SWAT team. The bus was detoured, turning on Ontario Street and forcing Henry to get off farther than usual from her house.
“It’s only two blocks but those are two long blocks for someone who is on oxygen trying to walk,” she said.
She was out of breath by the time she reached Zion, where she saw three officers with long guns. She thought this looked like something from a TV show, not her lifelong neighborhood.
“This can’t be real. I’m actually seeing the weapons out in public,” she thought. “As long as I’ve been on this earth I’ve never seen that on this street in front of the church.”
Henry’s friends and family were texting in a group chat, all making sure Amaya was okay.
Family from Detroit and Edgewood, Md., were calling her and asking whether she was safe. This wasn’t the neighborhood she knew.
By 7:34, she texted friends and family:
“The baby is out of lockdown.”
Days later on Saturday afternoon, Amaya was cartwheeling around the house, playing a robot game on her grandmother’s phone, and doing the floss dance. They hadn’t talked about what happened Wednesday and Henry wasn’t sure whether they would. It would be up to Amaya when she is ready.
Sitting in church Sunday, Henry thought about her granddaughter, other family and Wednesday’s violence. She cheered and nodded as Harrison told the congregation they must have compassion.
“Up and down Venango someone needs your help,” he preached. “Up and down Broad Street they need your help. Over on Butler Street they need your help.”
While concerned about the violence across Philadelphia, he believes faith can bring people together.