St. Rita's assists crime-affected families

Co-victims of homicide 
gathered at a Newbold church’s interfaith service 
to seek solace.

By Joseph Myers

Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 6, 2012

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Representatives from the faith traditions lifted a bowl that included the names of nearly 100 victims of violence. 

Photo by Joseph Myers

Though she gains professional pride by assisting mentally ill adults as a social worker, Movita Johnson-Harrell derives her richest happiness from completing her motherly duties. 

The Lansdowne resident suffered an interruption to her matriarchal identity nearly two years ago, losing a son to gun violence. She continued her healing Sunday afternoon at the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia, 1166 S. Broad St., as she, husband Yancy Harrell and 200 other guests attended the Service of Light + Hope, an interfaith gathering for grieving co-victims of homicide. 

“It’s been a long road,” Johnson-Harrell said within the Newbold worship site of maintaining her resolve minus Charles Johnson. “I’ve had to struggle to know how to go on, but because of my relationship with God, I knew something great would come out of the tragedy.”

The devout Muslim joined equally reverent Christians and Jews for the ceremony, whose organizers aimed for participants to use their belief systems as aids in understanding sorrowful circumstances. For Johnson-Harrell, who learned of the day through a co-victims’ listserv, the one-hour affair furthered a fight to balance disappointment and action.

She relayed that Sean Jones, then 23, and Troy Thornton, then 24, allegedly shot her son in a case of mistaken identity on Jan. 12, 2011 in East Mount Airy. The 18-year-old, who died the next morning, had planned to explore a career in carpentry and left behind a pregnant fiancée along with his parents and three siblings.

“I had no healing until authorities could give us good news,” Johnson-Harrell said of Jones’ March 12, ’11 surrender and Thornton’s June 29, ’11 arrest in Southwest Philly. “Then I felt I could begin to recover.”

Jones and Thornton will return to court Feb. 4 for their seven-day jury trial, according to court records, with Johnson-Harrell hopeful for their conviction. She is looking to keep youths from courting violence through her nonprofit The Charles Foundation, which stands for “Creating Healthy Alternatives Results in Less Emotional Suffering.”

“It’s amazing how God will give you what you need to get through,” she said. “I’ve been so angry with God, but he still loves me and cares for me, so I am grateful.”

Rev. Joseph Genito adopted the same indebted gratitude in welcoming the attendees. The Augustinian, who serves as the pastor and shrine director for the 105-year-old church, lauded its patron, a 15th-century nun who prior to taking her sacred vows wed a violent man who would perish through a feud between his family and a neighboring clan, as a model for tolerating loss. He also noted although people suffer individually, they can call on one another for comfort.

“That ability to rely on fellow bearers of pain partially motivated the creation of this event,” Rev. Jim Paradis, director of ministries for the soon-to-be finalized adjacent Cascia Center, which will focus on forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation, said.

He started considering a therapeutic day this spring after reading of New York nuns who had organized an interfaith convocation.

“I’d not known if this city had done anything similar, but I wanted to replicate the call, as we’re trying to link St. Rita’s message of nonviolence with the entire community, regardless of one’s religion,” Paradis said.

Philadelphia averaged 316 homicides between ’08 and ’11 and had suffered 311 cases this year as of press time, so he knew he needed to act fast, contacting organizations, including Fairmount’s Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, to form a committee and make outreach to co-victims.

“We reacted right away,” Myra J. Maxwell, the partnership’s director of victim services and the pastor at St. Luke’s Restoration Worship Center United Methodist Church, 440 Snyder Ave., said. 

She secured participants from 1,700 co-victim families and friends, with the committee selecting the First Sunday of Advent, which marks the spiritual countdown to Christmas.

“We knew we wanted something before our respective holidays and today, especially for Christians, seemed fitting but more so because special occasions often are the toughest for mourning families,” Paradis said.

After Genito’s greeting, the visitors silently reflected on their loved ones’ lives, with the Collegiate Choir of Philadelphia offering a calming selection. The Jewish, Islamic and Christian traditions guided the service, as representatives petitioned for consolation and help. Rabbi Linda Holtzman, of Roxborough’s Mishkan Shalom, read the Kaddish, a central Jewish prayer believers use to reaffirm their faith despite their losses, with the congregation saying “We remember them” to musings on the departed. Imam Jameel Abdullah intoned an Islamic message before Rev. Allen Jenkins, of the St. Barnabas United Methodist Church, 1814 Wharton St., delivered Psalm 23’s vow never to fear evil because of God’s presence.

More textual appreciation for life and the management of separation through death followed, with Sister Cathy Nerney, of Chestnut Hill’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation providing the Book of Isaiah’s tenet that God will destroy death forever; Maxwell stating the Epistle to the Romans’ contention that nothing will separate humanity from the love of God; and Sister Khadijah Alderman presenting Chapter 103 of the Quran, which gives insights on how to temper reactions to setbacks.

With pieces of heart-shaped construction paper bearing their fallen acquaintances’ names, the relatives and friends walked up the center aisle and placed the appellations in a glass bowl. As Johnson-Harrell, her mate and the other stricken parties marched forward, Nerney and Rev. Paul Morrissey, whose Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor charity will hold programs at the center, read the names. 

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