New Year’s Eve vigil honors St. Louis homicide victims

KINGSWAY WEST— “This country needs love right now.”

Those were the words that community activist and vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life James Clark said he uttered when he got a brief moment to speak with President Donald Trump. Clark was recently honored by the U.S. Department of Justice for his work against violence in St. Louis.

He offered those same words to sorrow-faced families from St. Louis city and county at Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, at the annual New Year’s Eve Candlelight Service commemorating lives lost to violence in 2018.

“What we need now is togetherness,” said Clark during his turn at the packed vigil presented by Families Advocating Safe Streets, which has grown in attendance and popularity since it began in 1991.

Jeanette Culpepper, who lost her 22-year-old son Curtis Johnson to gun-violence, started the non-profit and annual remembrance.

“They cut the umbilical cord at birth, but we can still feel it sometimes,” Culpepper said, referring to the tears, outbursts and grimacing from mothers in attendance.

“I haven’t seen a mother that doesn’t shed a tear – some are quiet and some are very vocal,” Culpepper said in an interview after the service.

“No matter – good or bad or if they were murdered or not, they all hurt the same,” added Culpepper, who has worked at three funeral homes.

Some surviving family members at the vigil hoisted anti-crime signs and photographs of their late loved ones, while other mourners embraced each other or cried out the names of victims. The event included a candlelit reading of each victim’s name.

One mourner at the lectern turned to yell at cops for the officer-involved shooting-death of her son. Two other grievers scolded cops because of their son’s unsolved homicides. Others praised police for solving their loved ones’ murder cases.

Many attendees pointed a finger at the community for refusing to help police with investigations, while another lady asserted that guns and drugs are funneled into black communities. 

“It isn’t snitching if a life gets taken – it’s telling,” a female mourner said.

The vigil was also populated with clergy, elected officials, community advocates and top law enforcement including St. Louis city police chief John Hayden and St. Louis county police chief Jon Belmar. Also in attendance were undertaker Ronald L. Jones, who helped sponsor the service; and emergency room trauma surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Washington University, Dr. Laurie J. Punch.

“We can do better as a city,” said Aldermanic Board President Lewis Reed, adding that successful violence reduction programs can and should be implemented here in St. Louis. 

He mentioned the violence reduction model promoted by Cure Violence, a non-governmental organization founded in Chicago. According to data released by the organization, their presence in Chicago has reduced gun related killings by more than 41 percent. 

Reed said talking to mourners at vigils and funerals is heart-wrenching. He said as a father raising four children, he worries about his sons every day.

“We can change the environment, if we implement those programs,” Reed said

According to St. Louis City police, there were 186 reported homicides before Monday night’s vigil. 

A few hours after the vigil, Charles White, a 42-year-old black man, was murdered in south St. Louis, making him the last murder victim of the year. That shooting death brought the 2018 homicide total to 187.

Larry Harris, 69, was beaten to death by his roommate at a Spanish Lake nursing home on Wednesday, recording the first death here this year.

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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