KINGSWAY WEST – The streets of St. Louis, again this year, weren’t very safe – not even for children.
Residents became concerned, alarmed and enraged. Many were just plan hurt.
They are the grieving survivors of loved ones lost to the violent crimes this year.
These are the people that Families Advocating Safe Streets (FASS) aims to console by commemorating their loved ones at the annual New Year’s Eve Candlelight Service.
This year’s vigil will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 31, at Williams Temple Church of God in Christ at 1500 Union Blvd. at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
That’s the current church home of Jeanette Culpepper, who founded FASS in 1991. She was there Sunday, not only for the service but to pass out flyers as she does at this time every year for the annual remembrance.
She has compiled names of the year’s homicide victims, penned letters to the next of kin and has a few more doors of bereaved family members to knock on.
One of the homes is that of the parents of 7-year-old Xavier Usanga, who was killed in August as he played in a backyard with his sisters. Xavier was one of nearly 20 youths killed in the metropolitan area this year.
Culpepper won’t start knocking on the doors and running radio ads until after Christmas.
“It’s a sad occasion, so I don’t start early like for a party or a parade. We’re talking about death and families grieving,” said Culpepper, who recalls past years recording high numbers of youth shooting deaths.
“The ages go up and down, but I remember there being 14-, 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds getting killed before. This year, they were much younger, like Xavier, so that why so many people were tuned in,” Culpepper said.
For Culpepper, it doesn’t matter what age the homicide victims are or the total number in a given year. And she includes those who die of “officer-involved” shootings and also police officers.
“Who am I to judge? It doesn’t matter how good or how bad your loved one is, we all hurt the same,” Culpepper said. She herself lost her son to gun violence in 1991, sparking her to hold the annual vigils.
“No one is going to stand up for your loved one like you are, so you have to get out there yourself and do it,” Culpepper explained. She has been doing it for herself and others for nearly 30 years.
She held the first vigil in front of City Hall when Vince Schoemehl was mayor and Clarence Harmon the chief of police.
Her son, Curtis Johnson, was 22 when he was killed in a week in which five others also fell victim. She stayed in the street and said she had solved her own son’s case, though the suspected defendant was found not guilty.
Culpepper said she could relate very well to those who had lost a child and were looking for justice or solace.
Getting back to some perceived normalcy for Culpepper was a long time coming, and she didn’t think she would make it.
At one point, she said, she contemplated suicide.
“I know about that pain and the sleepless nights,” she said. Culpepper takes phone calls from grieving parents at all times of morning, listening, consoling and walking them through the system.
“I try to be there for them in any way that I can,” she said. “When you look in that box – that’s your baby, and your mind goes all the way back to looking through that nursery window.”
Culpepper noted the tears, outbursts and grimacing from mothers in attendance.
During the annual candlelight vigil, the names of all the year’s victims are read. Speakers usually include clergy, elected officials, community leaders and rank-and-file police officers, who attend every year.
“We hold police officers accountable, but they still come,” Culpepper added. “And you have to remember, they have family members who get killed, and sometimes police officers get killed. So, we bring everybody together as one.”
Next year, Culpepper said, she wants to work toward helping juveniles stay out of trouble and, ultimately, jail.
She referenced a robbery attempt last year by two young black males that took the life of retired city police Sgt. Ralph E. Harper, 67.
“I just want them to know the hardships and what they put people’s families through,” Culpepper said.
She also pointed out the hardship of young boys going to the “big house,” or prison, which is something she also wants to prevent for juveniles – all the while, making St. Louis streets safer.