Before families in Miami’s black communities bury loved ones killed by violent shootings, they call a pastor.
The pastors console grief-stricken mothers and fathers. And on the day of the funeral, usually a Saturday, they look into the tear-streaked faces of mourners and deliver a eulogy that touches on the value of life.
The victims’ names and ages change, but the somber process is almost formulaic.
“I’m tired of burying our children. I do an average of two funerals a Saturday,” said the Rev. Billy Strange of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. “When I get a break, I thank God. Sixty or 70 percent of the funerals I do are homicides.”
Armed with the word of God, Strange leads a coalition of pastors from Miami-Dade County’s urban communities who are tackling the issue of violent crimes. The pastors hail from Richmond Heights, Overtown, Liberty City, Miami Gardens and parts of unincorporated Miami-Dade. Their mission is dubbed CAP, derived from “Call A Pastor.”
The name is a play on the urban slang “bust a cap in you,” which means to shoot someone.
The murders in black Miami and the prevalent no-snitch culture is a cause of concern for community leaders who hope that pastors can exert their influence to make a difference.
“We have a trust deficit in our community. People don’t necessarily want to be friends with the police,” said Miami Gardens Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro. “When people are afraid, when they have problems, when their kids get in trouble, they call pastors. It makes sense — the pastors can help.”
Experts say the coalition’s strategy to use the churches’ resources to combat crime and living conditions that lead to crime can be effective.
James Cavendish, a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, has researched church activism in Chicago. He said that similar efforts in Chicago put criminals and the community on notice that the clergy was watching and participating.
“It says that this is a cause that’s greater than just this community. This is a cause that God wants us to embark on,” he said. “It gives these causes a transcendental value. It gives people the message that God is on their side,” Cavendish said.
A spate of shootings in January and February put CAP’s focus on gun violence in black Miami.
Miami rap artist Andre Scott, who performs as Young Scrilla, was shot in the right leg in Overtown. Sixteen-year-old Marquis Bruson was gunned down near Northwest 13th Place and 62nd Street in the early afternoon hours. Bruson died at the hospital.
In Miami Gardens, Landon Kinsey, a 15-year-old Miami Carol City student, was shot multiple times on his way to a friend’s house. He died.
“We think that it is a desperate situation we are facing when we are killing each other literally,” said the Rev. Mary Tumpkin of Universal Truth Center in Miami Gardens. “We needed to stop preaching to the four walls and go out to the community where the people are.”
The group of pastors said they would address some of the social and economic challenges that can lead young black men and women down the wrong path. So they partnered with other community agencies that provide parenting classes, job training, record-expungement and counseling services.
“When you look at the economic struggles, drug issues, there are a lack of opportunities,” said the Rev. Richard P. Dunn II, former Miami commissioner and pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church in unincorporated Miami-Dade. “The Bible is clear, ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil,’ but the lack of money can be the root of evil, too.”
Dunn eulogized Brownsville resident Corey Graham at his funeral in February. The 29-year-old was shot and killed in front of his home.
“Many times as a pastor, we take on the life and death issues of humanity — it can weigh heavy on you,” he said.
For one of the pastors, the mission is extremely personal.
In November, while trying to defuse a fight between his daughter and another young woman, the Rev. Vernon Gillum of God’s Tabernacle of Deliverance Ministry in Liberty City, was shot in the back. His son, Quentin Brice, 22, was also helping to calm the dispute, Gillum said.
Brice was shot in the chest by an unknown assailant; he died.
“The message we’re trying to send through CAP is that we don’t want to wait for a tragedy to become engaged,” Gillum said. “We need to find a way to get these guns off the streets.”