PHILADELPHIA — The vigil that follows senseless violence has become standard issue in some communities: candles and TV cameras, prayers, tears, and outrage. But the response to the shooting of a Philadelphia student near his high school this fall drew a different kind of response. A few days after the killing, as many as 1,000 neighborhood men encircled Germantown High School as they clasped each other's hands, prayed, and vowed to become an active part of the fight against violence.
Now, two months later, men from 16 area churches are following through on that promise. Earlier this month, after receiving Town Watch training, dozens of men began foot patrols at nearby street corners surrounding Germantown High, morning and afternoon, ensuring the teens safe passage.
But their interest in the students doesn't stop when they've seen them safely through the schoolhouse doors. The men's goal is to come to know these kids, to play a more active role in their young lives. To that end, they are also training through United Way to become mentors. They are laying out rites-of-passage programs to teach the responsibilities of manhood. They have even identified 85 students who want to participate in a choir, as well as a choir director to take them on.
On the street corners, their immediate aim is simple: to be there, day in and day out, with a friendly greeting, so that the children know they are safe going to and from school. That done, the men hope to extend their protective arm to the middle schools that feed into Germantown. And they are documenting their efforts for other neighborhoods in the city, where adults have already sought their input.
"We want to get one thing [at a time] done right, and as we grow, adding churches, we can add feeder schools," explains the Rev. LeRoi Simmons, assistant minister at Canaan Baptist Church and coordinator for the Germantown clergy. "If we do it right, we can be a model for others."
The clergy initiative dovetails in places with existing programs at member churches and other area organizations, and complements much of the Philadelphia School District's faith- and community-based initiatives program. The clergy group, though, is independent and self-organized, identifying and checking off its own objectives - including fasting and prayer as well as press releases and radio promotions. They prefer the speed and fluidity that they feel would be compromised by regulations, bureaucracy, and public funding.
"If God leads you to it, He will cover your need," says Mr. Simmons.
For this group, the driving force behind all their efforts is prayer. The men pray before taking to the streets. They pray at training meetings. Even as they develop such worldly tools as a database, their vast network of church groups and Bible studies - at which attendance can near 1,000 - serves as "the drum" which summons the forces needed to staff a corner or encircle a school.
They hope, they say, to transcend individual ego and congregational politics. Some participants say that the sheer maleness of the effort has had an energizing effect. "When men speak, people listen, frankly - particularly in our community," explains Joseph Meade, Philadelphia School District director of faith and community based initiatives.
With 1,500 students, 99 percent of them African-American, the school is in the heart of one of the country's most historic neighborhoods. Here, students trundle past pristine houses from the Revolutionary era, which share the street with vacant buildings and check-cashing establishments.
The first "safe corridors" took shape one cold Friday earlier this month along street corners near Germantown High. Now, men in pairs, wearing bright yellow vests, take up their posts daily, dispatched down the street from the command center, the Circle of Hope Church above the Value Store.
Inside the school, according to principal Catherine P. Murphy, the students are heartened by the show of care, both now and during last month's vigil: "It's a strong statement from men to say, 'We took a day off from work that day to come to the school.' " She said students often bring outside troubles into school with them, and that she has tried in vain to develop a safe-passage program. "The amazing thing [about the recent initiative] is that it is sustained," she adds, saying her staff has already identified dozens of students for the upcoming mentoring sessions.
If the high school personnel think the men are heaven-sent, Emmett Mayo won't quibble. The strapping Vietnam veteran and retired electrician says he sensed a call from God two years ago during surgery: "It's not time for you to go. I have work for you." The patrol is that work, Mayo believes.
His own children have graduated from college, and now he stands as a father figure to others. "Hopefully, I'll get a chance to meet some of these children as I stand on this corner and say 'hello' to them. And hopefully they remember me as they go on later in life to a higher stature than I will ever attain."
With an estimated 40 churches within a four-block radius of Germantown High, the clergy initiative hopes to keep adding congregations to its ranks. A sprinkling of women also participate, among them Marcia Moore, who applauds the men. "I think it's wonderful. They need to take their rightful place as being at the head."
Philadelphia officials preside over an ongoing effort to make schools safe, with a 450-officer full-time school police force, metal detectors available in every school, security cameras, and a move toward smaller schools.
School-related violence has been down in Philadelphia this year, as in the nation, but a series of incidents this fall has brought it to the forefront again. Currently under debate is a request by district CEO Paul Vallas for armed Philadelphia police officers in, or at least immediately outside of, the largest high schools. Mayor John Street's office is calling instead for beefed-up intelligence.
Mungu Sanchez, a Germantown High volunteer, says he feels an unprecedented sense of connectedness among churches in the neighborhood. "This is what you do as men and women of faith," he believes.
While ensuring teens safe passage, his aim is simple: "To talk to the young men and women. They are not invisible. A lot of times it's just a kind gesture that puts them in touch with their humanity, that puts them in touch with their divinity."