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Lancaster residents walk, pray for neighborhood's safety

Just one day after two of her daughter's killers were arrested, the mother of slain Jenika Jones walked, prayed and chanted: "Get rid of them guns. Get rid of that crack. Take your neighborhood back."

Rachelle Stevenson, 38, still mourns her daughter Jenika, a mother of three who was shot to death during a robbery attempt at her home in January. Still, she joined more than 40 friends, neighbors, bikers and pastors in marching through the Lancaster's eastside communities, taking a prayerful stance against the excessive crime they say has tainted their home.

The prayer march - where residents assemble and march through high-crime neighborhoods before settling at one point and praying over the area - drew its largest crowd on Saturday since it first started four years ago, according to organizers.

The heart of the march is Lancaster City Councilwoman Tamara Green Garris, who said she felt a need to foster close relationships and partnerships between the community and law enforcement, while also empowering residents.

"Some senior citizens in our community are afraid to sit on their porches" because of gunfire, she said. "All these murders and killings and drugs need to stop, and it stops with us," Garris said.

Partnering with the Lancaster Police Department, Garris helped found the Lancaster Alternative Policing Strategy (LAPS), which hosts prayer vigils, presentations and marches to call attention to crime issues in the community.

Those issues haven't gone unnoticed by the townspeople.

Since returning to his native home four years ago, Racarda Blackmon has worked to correct many problems.

An outreach minister who frequents prisons, Blackmon said the answer to discouraging "senseless drive-by shootings" and "senseless murders" is education and "the Word of God."

To Henry "Goodnews" Jones, a Lancaster native and a gospel promoter, the root of escalating violence and death in Lancaster lies with a lack of love.

"So many of the young men don't have love," Jones said.

The march

Clutching onto banners, marchers took to the streets, venturing into neighborhoods they say are infested with homicide and drugs.

Together, they shouted their message: "We're sick and tired of being sick and tired, take your neighborhood back."

As they walked, their chants became a melody.

"Get rid of the guns. Get rid of the crack. Take your neighborhood back."

Chief of Police Harlene Howard led residents into the Palmetto Place apartment complex, a series of subsidized housing units which has a reputation for rampant shootings, stabbings and murders.

"At one time, this area fielded most of our calls for service," Howard said.

Things have "calmed" for the area, said Shanequal Blakeney, who watched as the procession passed through her home.

Still, Blakeney, 21, is no stranger to the area's violence. In the past, she said she has watched people die on the streets and she has comforted wounded friends while they waited for the ambulance.

"I think it (the march) needs to be done more often," Blakeney said.

Marchers bowed their heads as the Rev. George Williams prayed that "spirits of murder, drugs and suicide" be cast out the area and replaced with love, joy, peace and unity.

At the "gateway" of the complex, Pastor Ricky Haile prayed for changed hearts and minds.

"The more we lift you up Jesus, the more you'll draw people to you," he prayed. "This day brings about a new day."

The march continued down Willow Lake Road, an area one man called "the hole," where it's not uncommon for pit bulls to roam the streets leash-free.

But it didn't matter

Close to the area where Cynthia "Fruity" Barnes was killed last month, Councilwoman Garris encouraged residents to shout louder than they already had.

"We really need it here," she said.

It's also needed at the corner of East Dunlap and North Gregory streets, where Tony Armor's son was gunned down after a case of mistaken identity on his 30th birthday. That same week, his daughter was born.

Now, a shrine of flowers preserves Anthony's memory and reminds Armor of his need to march and pray.

Near the end of the journey, the Rev. James Barnette, founder of the Stop the Killing Crusade in Charlotte, addressed his co-marchers.

"You have become a ray of hope," he told them. "They know you mean business now."

Murders in Lancaster

There have been four murders in Lancaster this year, according to police.

Jan. 19: Jenika Jones

Feb. 7: Danny Clyburn

Feb. 9: Cynthia Barnes

Feb. 25 Linda Massey Gayman.