Pastor Kenneth Johnson was on his way home when he got a phone call to return to his Liberty City church to give a helping hand.
It was an act of kindness that he likely did not think twice about — something that he had repeated dozens of times in his role as assistant pastor at Power Faith and Deliverance Ministries.
After helping the senior pastor’s son get his car started, Johnson walked a little over a block to the nearby City Market convenience store, at Northwest 62nd Street and Northwest 13th Avenue, to get a bottle of water. Clutching the bottle in one hand and holding change from a bill in the other, he walked out into a community that he had embraced, and one that had embraced him for some 10 years.
It was there, in a neighborhood where he is well known, where family and friends say he spent his days ministering to young people and helping those in need — that his life ended in a quick, brazen, violent act.
Two young men, unconcerned with the busy street scene in front of the popular market around 5:30 p.m. Thursday, walked up, tried to snatch the money from his hand and a gold-plated chain from around his neck.
They tussled and Johnson fought back. Several shots rang out and the young suspects fled into a nearby apartment complex.
As Johnson, 67, lay dying on the sidewalk on Thursday evening, a community was left to mourn.
Miami police, who had added extra patrols in the area because of a rash of shootings during past months, quickly rounded up two suspects — one of whom had changed clothes — and found the gun. They arrested Larry Flowers, 20, and Tyreke Desire, 19, both of whom have arrest records.
Johnson was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries.
“It hurts,” the pastor’s wife, Latoya Johnson, told Miami Herald news partner CBS4. “Why would they do that? Why would they take his life? Just take the chain and don’t hurt him.”
After the shooting, in a quickly assembled press conference in Liberty City on Friday morning, Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said his department will continue to flood the area with more officers.
“It was a blow that even somebody from the church, somebody that is peaceful in nature, would get killed tragically and senselessly like this,” Orosa said. “I think the community’s getting tired of this situation.”
In addition to adding more officers, the department also will reassign problem-solving teams from less crime-ridden areas to the Liberty Square community, Orosa said.
He said that while police still need the community to help them identify criminals, the area needs more job opportunities to occupy young people.
“Everything down there is fueled by the drug trade and it’s fueled by young adults who have no jobs and have no future,” Orosa said. “They’re not afraid of dying and they’re not afraid of keeping quiet and not talking to the police.”
Gloria Sims, 33, who grew up in the area, was very familiar with Pastor Johnson, who served at the church for about 10 years.
“I used to see him every day,” Sims said. “He’d hold your hand and pray for you and he was always doing something for somebody else.”
The lack of opportunities for the community’s youths makes the neighborhood a dangerous place, she said. She remembers always having something to do when she was growing up, and kids felt safe playing outside.
“Now, when it comes to be summer time, we already know that people are gonna die,” she said.
Senior Pastor Vincent Spann described Johnson as a “martyr” for the community.
“I should be mourning but I have a sense of joy, because I believe his death will cause greater things to happen,” Spann said. “I believe it’s going to catapult us into action and change this community so they’ll get tired of not talking. We’re not going to let this moment go to waste, we’re going to press his name in people’s minds,” Spann said.
Later Friday, about 30 people gathered for a vigil and march from the church to the nearby convenience store. Spann led a prayer as the crowd lit candles and sprinkled salt on the store’s parking lot.
Johnson was like family, said Stacey Dean, 43, a coworker at the church. He could have just worked inside the church, but he chose to get involved in the community, Dean said.
“The same people that he tried to help killed him,” Dean said.
Jarius Archie, 21, said Johnson had taken him under his wing and gave him a place to stay at one of the ministry's locations two months ago. Now, Archie said he is working toward a singing career.
Samuel Walton, 58, who works security at the church and lives across the street, said he heard at least four shots, then looked out of his bathroom window and saw the scene unfolding at the convenience store.
He saw Johnson’s car still parked in the area. His worst fears later were confirmed.
“We’d call each other and pray every morning,” Walton said. “He was my prayer partner.”
Despite the recent spate of violence, Walton said he will not stop working at the church or leave Liberty City.
“We can’t show no fear,” he said. “This is my ’hood and I’m trying to do positive things.”
Miami Herald news partner CBS4 and Herald photographer Walter Michot contributed to this report.