As the sun beat down, pastors greeted one another, the mayor sweated, and the Word of the Lord bore itself across Melrose Park.
“We rest in a valley,” the Rev. David Jones told a crowd 100-strong, “that has recently become the valley of the shadow of death.”
Faith and city leaders held a prayer vigil on Friday after the city’s deadliest week in recent memory.
“Guns down, prayers up,” Bishop J. L. Jackson preached, leading the crowd in a chant. “Guns down, prayers up.”
On July 17, Kyyona Casey, 21, and Justin Jennings, 31, were killed in a shooting not far from the park. On Sunday, Salonya Evans, 24, was shot dead near her home in southeast Roanoke.
Roanoke hasn’t seen three shooting deaths in so close a time frame for at least 15 years, according to homicide database kept by The Roanoke Times. Nobody has been arrested in those cases.
While the city remains relatively safe, and violent crime is rare, the back-to-back killings sparked a reckoning among city leaders.
Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd spoke this week with Mayor Sherman Lea, who is an elder at her church.
“We were just talking about prayer,” she said. “I felt the need to do something.”
The city is already exploring the roots of gun violence with a recently formed task force.
“This was entirely different,” White-Boyd said. “We are hoping that we will move in a mighty way and that prayer will help and encourage people and unite us.”
On Friday, White-Boyd told the crowd she’d received messages from people wondering what the point would be.
“What is that going to do? What is prayer going to do?” she said. “This is going to say, the devil is a liar!” The crowd applauded. Someone yelled an Amen.
India Younger heard about the event from one of the preachers who spoke Friday.
“I love when everybody can come together for something, and I believe in the power of prayer,” Younger, 28, said.
She also knew Evans. The two used to play together as children growing up in northwest Roanoke. Later, Younger would see Evans when they dropped off their daughters at the same daycare.
“We’re believers in Christ,” said Younger’s husband, Rashad Younger. “I used to do a lot of wrong in the community.”
He, too, felt called Monday to do something. Struck by the recent violence, Rashad Younger put out a call on social media: He wants to raise school-supply money for children who lost a parent.
Leaders hope the vigil will serve to inspire people with knowledge about killings, recent or otherwise, to tell authorities.
“It’s hard to bring justice to these violent crimes if nobody will talk,” White-Boyd said. “That code of silence is killing people.”