Donna Ecker was in tears when she clasped her hands and bowed her head in prayer with her two friends outside the Gold More Mini Mart on a frigid day in January.
“A mother should never bury her child, God,” she whispered. “We pray to you for peace on our streets.”
Five days earlier, Julius Greer Jr. had stumbled into the store at the corner of North and Herald streets with a single gunshot wound in his back. He was 14 years old, the eldest of four siblings, and the city’s first homicide victim of the year.
Ecker and her friends, Catholic deacons John Crego and Ed Knauf, were there to answer their ministry’s calling to visit the sites of slayings in the city and pray for the victims and their families.
When they arrived at the corner that day, there was plenty to cry about. The collection of votive candles on the sidewalk slick with ice. The black and red balloons fluttering from a no parking sign. The leftover yellow police tape clinging to a utility pole.
But what caused Ecker to well up were the words of a broken woman who had pulled her car to the curb to affix a bouquet of artificial flowers to the no parking sign with a twist tie.
“I wanted to come here and post something for this young man because I lost my son, too,” the woman said, her voice shaking. “I just feel so pained for the family because I know how it feels.”
Her name was Hyo Jin and her son was Tywan Harper. He was 22 when he was shot and killed in a stairwell in an apartment building on Chestnut Street in November.
The people in the prayer group nodded. They remembered Tywan. They had prayed for him and another man who died with him in that stairwell, Malakai Smith, who was 19.
“No mother . . .” Jin continued before trailing off. “Losing a son, that pain is different.”
Then she broke down and got back in her car and drove off. Joining the prayer group, she said before closing the door, was too much for her.
Ecker, Crego, and Knauf are part of a small ministry of Catholic faithful who hold vigils for homicide victims. Their ministry dates back more than 20 years, but has been more active than ever with violence in Rochester at record levels and showing few signs of slowing.
Homicides hit an all-time high last year with 81. The 420 people who were shot within the city limits in 2021 was a 25-percent jump over the previous year and a nearly 150-percent increase over 2019, according to Rochester Police Department data.
Those in the ministry prayed for all the dead — and their families, and their perpetrators, and their neighborhoods. They learn about the slayings from the news, then schedule a gathering at the site to pray for grace and peace.
Each time, they hope the vigil will be their last. But lately, word of another killing reaches them every few days.
“The idea is to reconsecrate the ground and give presence in the neighborhood to let the neighbors know that there are those who support them, who worry about them, and are concerned with the violence,” Ecker said.
The ministry was launched in 1999 by William Coffey, then a deacon at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The initiative grew out of an interfaith group called Beyond Racism, and was more adept in its early days than now at drawing support from wide circles of people.
News reports from that time chronicled vigils that hosted anywhere from 20 to 200 people. These days, due in part to the pandemic and in part to an aging organization, the prayer vigils are frequently attended by no more than a few people. Coffey, now 85, described himself as an occasional participant.
In December, Ecker and Knauf went to the corner of North Clinton Avenue and Norton Street to pray at the site of the shooting of Christopher Porchea, 51. Police found him wounded in the parking lot of a liquor store at the intersection. He died three days later.
They prayed alone as passersby went about their lives. They asked God to have mercy on the city and its neighborhoods touched by violence. Across the street stood a billboard seeking information in the killing of Jonathan Delgado, 27, who was shot to death on Portland Avenue in 2015.
“When you’re at the site, it brings it home in a tangible way that doesn’t really happen when I read about it in the paper or see it on the news,” Knauf said. “If I go to the site, it becomes real. It’s not somebody else. You start feeling like it’s all of us who are hurt.”
Most of the locations of the crimes are in neighborhoods whose residents are predominantly Black and Hispanic and poor. Members of the ministry are older and white.
While they do not live in most of the neighborhoods they visit, they have worked for or with many of their residents in some capacity.
Ecker, 77, ran the Bethany House, a shelter on Joseph Avenue for women who are homeless or victims of domestic violence, for 32 years. She choked back tears upon recalling the names of residents whose violent deaths came to the attention of the ministry.
Knauf, 62, is the deacon for the Southeast Rochester Catholic Community, a partnership of three Catholic parishes — Blessed Sacrament, St. Boniface, and St. Mary’s — with a variety of ministries aimed at helping people living on the margins of society.
Still, they said that sometimes during their prayers they’re told by passersby to “get lost” or that they “don’t belong here.”
But they persevere, they said, because they believe their work is important and that they are more often than not welcomed by residents. They said they frequently attempt to coordinate their prayers with relatives of the deceased and that they sometimes join them.
“I think an important message is that we’re all part of this community and it’s important for people who are stuck because people living in a lot of these neighborhoods are stuck,” Ecker said.
“The sense of violence that’s going on now is very frightening and it’s very frightening for people who live in the neighborhoods,” she went on. “They’re not even comfortable walking to the store. Think about young mothers with small children. You can’t let your children outside to play because it’s not safe.”
That was the sense in the neighborhood around North and Herald streets after Julius Greer Jr. was shot and killed on a quiet Sunday evening outside the Gold More Mini Mart, where the ministry had gathered to pray.
No one seems to know how or why he was shot — not his parents, not his neighbors, not the police. The best anyone can tell is he was struck by a random bullet.
His parents caught the tail end of the prayer vigil after getting word from relatives who had stopped in the store that the ministry was under way.
As the prayers wound down, Julius Greer Sr. stood shaking his head and staring helplessly at the ground. “I just don’t understand this,” he kept saying. “I really don’t understand.”
Greer explained that he was in the store five minutes before his son was shot. He said he had made small talk with a customer and the manager and left, forgetting to buy a package of pasta elbows for a goulash he had planned to make for dinner.
“When I got home I asked him to run to the store real quick to get it and he said, ‘OK, Daddy,’” Greer, 32, recalled. “And it literally happened within a couple of seconds.”
Greer said the police told him the cameras outside the store weren’t working that night. He pointed across the street, not far from where he and his family live.
“The only hope I even got around here are the cameras across the street at that house over there,” he said. “The only thing the police said they got on camera was my son running in the store and collapsing.”
Ecker and Crego and Knauf offered their condolences and hugged Greer and the boy’s mother, Monique Bunton, both of whom thanked them for their prayers.
“I can’t believe somebody really did this to my baby because he didn’t deserve this,” Bunton said. “He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
She laid a hand on her stomach. She was pregnant with twins.
“It’s like you can’t even see your kids to the store now,” she said. “They can’t play in the front yard. Nothing. The city’s crazy, and I hate it.”
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