When he learned that a 13-year-old was shot and killed in southwest Illinois, United Church of Christ pastor the Rev. Aaron Ban felt the need to honor the boy and bring his community together in a peaceful demonstration of solidarity against street violence. For Ban and members of St. Peter UCC in the Granite City neighborhood, the shock of the tragedy still exists, but they're determined to remain strong in the moment.
"I thought, 'I live in the neighborhood,'" Ban said. "There are a lot of kids there, and hardworking parents who come home and don't want to see their kids shot. [I think] the event was a positive response — given the rumored threats against the suspect in custody. We had a vigil offering an alternative to the cycle of violence that has the potential to never end."
For the congregation of St. Peter, it's a challenge to remain in Granite City, a suburb of St. Louis, during a difficult time, Ban said, but the church has established some roots by reaching out to the neighborhood.
"We had an ecumenical prayer vigil for peace [on May 8]. We canvassed the neighborhood and it was a combination of church members here and other folk," Ban said. "I was happy with the turnout. We had 200 people approximately. We marched around the block, and we had about 150 people stay for a prayer service."
Ban was joined by Rev. Starsky Wilson, pastor at St. John UCC in St. Louis, during the service. Wilson brought a personal message of hope: his brother was shot and killed in street violence. He exhorted the crowd to come together in a spirit of reconciliation after Clayton Veninga's tragic death.
The teenager died after a shooting late Wednesday, May 1, as and he and a friend were sitting on the porch of a house located near St. Peter UCC. Gunshots rang out and the boys scattered, but Veninga was shot in the midsection, and before he could reach a friend's house he collapsed in the driveway. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital. Police have taken a 17-year-old into custody, and he could be tried as an adult.
Ban was heading home, saw police lights as he pulled into his driveway, and noticed a woman in shock, noticeably shaking and crying. He went to her and offered to pray with her, and the woman (the victim's mother) agreed. Ban offered to drive the woman and her daughter, Veninga's mother and sister, to the hospital and stayed with them to offer pastoral care during their vigil and while they were grieving.
Ban, a newly-ordained minister, felt called to respond to the murder and wrote an editorial for stltoday.com (St. Louis Today, a network of community websites for the St. Louis Post Dispatch) advocating peace in the face of violence. "Perhaps one thing we can do to honor Clayton and help prevent future violence is by practicing peace," he wrote.
"The themes [for the vigil and the letter] were similar," Ban said. "I preached Psalm 46. God is in the midst of the city… the idea that peace starts with simple decisions in your life and radiates through the community."
The May 8 service concluded with an offering of prayer request cards and money to benefit the bereaved family. The Rev. Sheldon Culver, minister for the Illinois South Conference of the UCC, prayed over the offering, and as the crowd departed with lit candles, they sang "Let there be peace on earth."
Going forward, Ban said it has become clear why St. Peter needs to continue reaching out to the neighborhood. "We offer stability, spiritual roots and an alternative to violence," he said. "The neighborhood offers us an opportunity to engage the time, talent and treasure of the people in our immediate area.
"It is the 'how' that remains to be seen. I will remain in touch with neighbors, walking the streets as part of my 'office hours,' and personally inviting people to gather for prayer, Bible study, worship and fellowship. I will try to stay in contact with the bereaved family."