Three nights a week, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., half a dozen St. Louis clergy members walk the streets in a line.
Led by Rev. Ken McKoy of the Progressive A.M.E Zion Church, they visit the Fountain Park and Lewis Place neighborhoods to act as a “ministry of presence,” as McKoy calls it. It’s a violence prevention effort that began on a grassroots level and is now on the cusp of expanding. McKoy calls it NightLIFE.
“When someone’s shot, there’s retaliation. So we try to stay ahead of that curve. We’re not law enforcement, but we try to talk to people and discourage people from retaliating,” McKoy said.
On a Thursday morning, we step out of the car by a nightclub and a tire store next to the Hodiamont tracks, a paved area that marks the former route of one of St. Louis’ famed streetcars. The neighborhoods McKoy walks are just north of the Central West End. They were chosen not just because of the crime but because the residents have the will to fight to make their neighborhood a better place, he said.
Sometimes, the group finds itself defusing situations before violence occurs.
McKoy remembers one night when a young man approached the group, visibly upset. After inviting him to walk with them, and stopping to pray, the young man lifted his shirt to show a handgun. He admitted he had plans to kill someone.
“I didn’t know what to do so I grabbed him, just kind of bear hugged him,” McKoy said. “I was like, listen, I’m not letting you go, because I need you free, I need you alive.”
McKoy asked the young man about his family and learned he had a son.
“I said, what are you going to do if you go kill someone and wind up in penitentiary for years and years and years. What is your son going to do?” McKoy said. “He broke down crying, we walked him to his block. I ran into him again two weeks ago.”
That day, McKoy said, the man thanked him for saving his life.
McKoy’s group held a “violence interrupter” training Thursday night for clergy and residents in north St. Louis. They brought in coordinators from Aim4Peace, a violence prevention program from the Kansas City Health Department. Together, they are planning to build a long-term approach for St. Louis.
One visiting trainer was Eva Schulte, president and CEO of Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City. CCO and Aim4Peace are founded on the principle that gun violence should be treated as a public health issue.
“Huge numbers of murders and acts of violence, it’s really like the epicenter of a disease. And if you start at the center and build a relational network that stabilizes neighborhoods from the center out, you can have the most dramatic impact,” Schulte said.
Schulte said it’s time for St. Louis and Kansas City to come together because the state of Missouri leads the nation in the murder rate of black men.
According to the Violence Policy Center, Missouri has 35 homicides per 100,000 black residents. That’s twice the national average.
McKoy said he feels strongly that gun violence is a matter of public health. The psychological trauma it creates for residents cannot be underestimated.
“I’ve done a number of funerals. I’ve seen siblings cry over dead siblings., grandmothers crying over their grandchildren,” McKoy said. “You have to stuff a lot of feelings at some point, just to survive this from day to day. But when you cross the Delmar divide, you’re expected to behave like everybody else, when your experience is totally different.”
For McKoy, this work is deeply personal. He was inspired to do these walks after Antonio Calvin, a young man he pastored, died violently at the age of 17. Earlier this summer, McKoy’s son survived a gunshot to the leg.
McKoy said that involving religious leaders in these walks is one reason it works. Their Fountain Park neighborhood has had just one homicide this year.
“I say this all the time, I just don’t believe in giving a benediction and dismissing people into the world that we as clergy haven’t tried to change,” McKoy said. “God is the god of the nighttime, too.”
For more health and science news from St. Louis, follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Eva Schulte as the founder of CCO: She is president and CEO.