A Community Cries Out for Relief
By Jeremy Morrison
It was a beautiful day in the park. Barbecued smoke spilled from large barrel grills and mixed with the gospel music coming out of the PA system. A copy of the Bible sunbathed on the hood of a Ram pickup truck.
Pastor Lonnie Wesley, of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church, soaked it in. He relished the day, but not the reason.
“I grew up just on the other side of those trees,” Wesley said, pointing across Westernmark Park. “I rode my bike up and down this street.”
He motions up and down Erress Boulevard, waving to a driver searching for a place to park. The street is lined with cars. People have come for the barbecue and a glimpse of hope.
“We’re like Jesus,” he would later joke. “We just want to use the food to get everyone to listen to what we have to say—it’s hard to listen when you’re hungry.”
The pastor is concerned about his community. He’s concerned about the increase in violence and crime. Wesley came to the park off of Massachusetts Avenue on Feb. 15, along with other religious and governmental leaders, for the 100 Man Walk—to eat, to speak out, to pick up litter and to let people “hear that somebody cares, somebody loves them.”
He elaborated later when speaking to the crowd gathered for the event.
“I hope you all came to help get the word out, that our community is not sitting by passively while blood’s shed onto the streets of Pensacola and Escambia County. No, we are not okay with this,” Wesley said when he took to the microphone. “This is not cool. It’s not cool at all. And we’re not going to stand for it.”
The pastor’s comments followed a series of speakers. Some of the more heartbreaking words were offered up by mothers.
“I just wish someone would come up and tell me where my child is,” said Sharon Gardner. “Michael, please come home to your mother.”
Garner’s son, Michael Lawson, has not been seen since Jan. 24. His car was found still running in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet on Brent Lane.
The 31-year-old Lawson has a criminal history—primarily drug convictions—and family members have voiced concern that his disappearance could be in retaliation for a drug-related shootout earlier in the month—for which his cousin has been arrested for—that left an 18-year-old dead. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating the disappearance.
“I feel like the system is failing me,” Garner told the crowd at Westernmark Park.
Rosa “Mama Rose” Dukes also spoke. Her son, Broderick Johnson, was found lying in a Diego Circle driveway, shot to death in May 2011. The murder remains unsolved.
“I never got over it,” Dukes said. “I never will.”
Lisa Wiggins, co-founder of Parents Against Injustice & Negligence, or PAIN, implored the community to help ease the pain of these women and other mothers who have lost—or will lose—their children to violence. She pleaded for anyone with information to come forward with it.
“You better recognize you have a mother, too,” Wiggins said, “and you would not want your mother going through what Michael’s mother is going through.”
Earlier, Pastor Wesley had talked about a community battling hopelessness. Leaning up against the Ram truck, he had described a landscape in decay, a horizon full of landfills and vacant properties and diminished opportunities.
“That’s not going to work in your psyche,” Wesley said. “All these play a part in your expectations.”
He said other events similar to the 100 Man Walk would be planned for other areas—“this is going to be going on all over the city, all over the county”—and stressed the importance of addressing the crime and violence facing the community.
“The community is not just sitting back quietly letting this happen,” Wesley said. “You have to start somewhere and maybe that’s in the community—let the community know that there’s hope.”
Speaking to the crowd gathered off of Massachusetts Avenue, Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May, who grew up in the area, spoke about the need to change the “culture.”
“Once they start pulling the trigger, it’s way too late to turn it around,” the commissioner said. “But we can change the culture.”
May described a culture of rampant violence, a community in need of a better way. He described a culture that was harmful to self and society.
“The prisons are filled with young African-Americans from Montclair and Morris Court,” May said. “It’s a shame.”
The commissioner’s younger brother, Rev. LuTimothy May—who serves at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, and also as the city of Pensacola’s director of community outreach—had earlier said the area’s issues were not confined to one arena and impacted the entire community.
“It’s not about a particular race, it’s not about a particular class,” the reverend said. “It’s about what we can do to make our community better.”
The District 3 commissioner shared his brother’s view.
“We say, by the grace of God it isn’t us,” May said. “But it is us, it’s all of us.”