Father’s Day morning, as Philadelphia police searched to identify suspects who shot eight people, one fatally, overnight, Christian leaders struggled to respond to the record-pace city violence that has killed at least 255 people so far this year.
Some felt called to blame fathers, or the absence of them. In too many American families, “people right now are wishing mothers ‘Happy Father’s Day,’” as they try to do double duty, the Rev. Herb Lusk, the former Philadelphia Eagles running back, lamented in his sermon at Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street.
He called missing fathers and the lack of their guidance and good example a factor in the way “we are still killing each other. Right now. Black on Black crime. We think we are evolving, but we are going down. We are killing our babies.”
Sunday’s early-morning shootings were followed later by a triple shooting at 7:10 p.m. in North Philly in which a 14-year-old boy was among the wounded, hit twice in the left thigh, police said. They followed three shootings on Saturday, including a triple in Overbrook in which two men were killed and a 3-year-old boy was shot three times in the right leg, which Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw denounced as “sickening.”
Even in the leafy green reaches of West Philadelphia around Clark Park, “peace and tranquility feels somewhat fragile,” said the Rev. Eric Banecker, pastor at St. Francis de Sales at 47th and Springfield, which with its elementary school serves a wide area with alternating blocks of working people, graduate students and poor families.
Residents have long lived with the small comfort that “most of the violent crime is targeted and localized to groups of associated persons,” Banecker said in an email responding to questions. But a shooting in the street just east of the church rectory on Thursday that left a man in critical condition with a stomach wound and scattered more than a dozen shell casings on the pavement hit so close that it “obviously put people on edge,” the pastor added.
In response, parishioners gathered to pray the rosary on the church’s stone steps. It’s becoming a ritual: Parishioners also brought rosaries to pray in the nearby park last year when the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist group, threatened a rally that upset neighbors and drew counterprotesters.
Banecker said his church recently pledged its support to violence prevention programs in a call with City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier: “Education is a major piece of the puzzle.”
So is the family, said the Rev. Luis Centeno, a pastor with Barnabas Transformation Ministry in Crescentville and a longtime Philadelphia police chaplain. “We live in a country that is divided over what the family should be, when what it needs is to be strengthened,” he said.
He praised individual ministries and agencies in Kensington and other stressed communities — Rock Ministries with its boxing program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Place of Refuge Trauma Center — for “saving a few,” but lamented the lack of citywide leadership that leaves churches and agencies “fighting each other for crumbs” of public subsidies, instead of working together to strengthen families as the best guarantor of their own children’s well-being.
“The record number of killings over the past year in Philadelphia and other big cities reflects the absence of peace, the absence of love,” said Terry Guerra, a community development worker and lay Franciscan sister.
“Peace is what Jesus desires for us, whether in calming the storm, or in lifting up the calling of peacemaker. And it is justice that leads to peace,” not only in society, but in each person, because society collects conflict and anger, as well as peacemaking and love, for each member, she added. “Have faith that, in the storm of violence,” the Lord is awake: “Call on him.”
Phillip Thomas, a Christian volunteer at anti-violence programs in Kensington neighborhoods especially affected by shootings, painkiller and heroin addiction, and drug gang activity, said an informal network of pastors of small Protestant churches and service program leaders have had to learn to deal with guns — often without help from city officers — if they hope to keep young people participating.
At a gathering in support of a Christian sports group last year at the Lighthouse Field at Second Street and Lehigh Avenue, Thomas and his son watched in alarm and dismay as “one of the kids pulled a gun on another. I was so amazed at the way the leaders defused the situation. They called him, talked to him, walked him away from the situation. They didn’t call police.”
Those who regularly work with youths, Thomas said, “told us, ‘When anger comes, you take the first thing that comes into your hands. Sadly, that is guns in many cases.’ There are a lot of people trying to help learn and teach better ways.”
”What is at the root of all these shootings? Two hundred [homicides], and we can’t bring them back, it causes despair,” said Luke LeTorneau, of Stewardship: A Mission of Faith, a lay ministry that supports Christian agencies in Philadelphia and conducts retreats for fathers, among other activities.
”What you have is, so many people are told that they are trash, that they are a cancer on society, and they are not treated with human dignity,” LeTorneau added. “We need to see ourselves as men who have a role as leaders in our families, to our children, and as the husbands our wives need.”
For LeTorneau, a Delaware County father of eight, it helps to tune out the scale of the problem and concentrate on people along one’s own path.
“I don’t watch the TV news anymore” because it feeds despair, he said. “Everyone has been dealing with something, for me it was alcoholism. I need not to judge you but to love you. How do we have an impact on one person? Maybe the action we do today with one person stops a shooting tomorrow.”