N.J. parishioners respond to street violence with prayer

People outside St. James Church in Trenton, N.J., pray Pope Francis’ “Prayer for Peace and Protection from Violence and from Terrorism.” (CNS photo/Handout, courtesy The Monitor Magazine)

By Mary Stadnyk, Catholic News Service

TRENTON — A recent homily by the pastor of St. James Church in Trenton got an immediate response from parishioners.

Inspired, they got up and walked outside of the church and prayed for peace, reciting Pope Francis’ “Prayer for Peace and Protection from Violence and from Terrorism” to confront rising violence in New Jersey’s capital city.

Trinitarian Father Stanley DeBoe, pastor of Incarnation-St. James Parish, which includes St. James Church, suggested during Mass the morning of Aug. 29 that a prayerful witness could help begin to reverse the trend toward violence and serve to show the surrounding neighborhood that parishioners were a visible presence for peace.

Trenton has experienced a rash of shootings leading to that weekend, including three incidents within a 10-day period that were within two blocks of the church.

A shooting that occurred directly across the street from the church the morning of Aug. 27 was especially troublesome. News reports indicated that a man, who was sitting in his car, was critically injured when he was struck with a bullet in a drive-by shooting.

Although Father DeBoe was disturbed by the increased violence, he said the Aug. 27 shooting “really shook me.” He was notified about the incident from an official at the Sprout School, a charter school located in the building of the former St. James School.

“The students and staff were sheltering in place,” he said. “Everyone in the building was OK, but as news and pictures came in, it was evident that the violence rocking our city and cities around the country, is right at our front door.”

Father DeBoe informed Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell about the incident and shared ideas he wanted to implement in the parish to address violence. He said he wanted to “encourage us, as a parish community, to become involved in actions of prayer and solidarity for our neighbors who live in fear and violence.”

It was heartening, Father DeBoe said, when Bishop O’Connell responded and expressed compassion. “Add my own prayers to yours,” the bishop wrote in an email. “Please give my love and prayers to all.”

Along with reciting the pope’s prayer after the homily, Father DeBoe’s other goals related to raising awareness about neighborhood violence. Although he is aware of safety concerns, he told The Monitor, newspaper of the Trenton Diocese that it also was his prayer that the incidents do not frighten parishioners or prevent them from taking positive action.

“I want (the incidents) to challenge us and for them to be an opportunity for us to be instruments of comfort, instruments of hope, instruments of love and change that will transform our neighborhood,” he said.

Father DeBoe told of how the day before the Mass he walked through the neighborhood in an effort to meet residents living near the church, something he had not had the opportunity to do since arriving as pastor of Incarnation-St. James in December.

“I sat on a few porches and listened to what they had to say. A couple of neighbors even invited me into their homes for coffee. I heard stories about our neighborhood,” he said, adding that it’s obvious that “they love this neighborhood, they’re proud of it and they are happy we are here.”

The local violence, he said, is not caused by the residents but by “those who are trying to scare people on this street … by people who are trying to take over this street.”

“They want this street, but we’re not going to let them have it,” he said of the residents and the parishioners who return to worship at St. James Church even though they may live elsewhere.

In his homily, he urged parishioners to be mindful of the importance of being a continued presence in the wider community.

“People are dying, being shot right at our doorstep and we can’t be blind to those at our doorstep,” he said. “The beauty of our church and our parish community needs to spill out of our hearts and out of this building and onto the street and into the homes of those who are right here. They are our neighbors.”

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