As neighbors in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood lit up the sky with celebratory fireworks in the early evening hours of New Year’s Day, families streamed into Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist church for what has become an annual tradition for parents who lost their children to gun violence.
They came wearing Rest in Peace shirts bearing the images of their loved ones and carrying poster board collages of baby pictures, graduations, birthday celebrations and the memorial programs for mostly young black men and teens killed in Miami-Dade.
Shantel Dixon carried a large picture of her son’s face, Jakyri Fleurimar.
“ I don’t want him to be forgotten,” said Dixon.
Three years ago she dropped her 15-year old son to his friend’s house to go to football practice. The friend got a hold of a gun and while trying to empty it of bullets accidentally shot Jakyri in the chest, according to police.
Dixon says the holidays are very hard for her. She felt she needed to start the New Year with other parents who understood the all-consuming pain of losing a child to gun violence.
About 100 families and friends filled the pews inside the church. This is the third year Florida's Parents of Murdered Children organized the prayer and vigil “in memory of the forgotten victims.”
Anabel Herrera’s 16-year old stepson was killed in Allapattah while riding his bicycle. She said the media attention and kind words of condolences quickly faded within months of her son’s death. It’s been five years, his case is still unsolved and if not for this community of other parents who share similar stories of heartbreak and loss, Herrera said she would be all alone with her hurt.
“To come together with parents who feel the same—you feel comfort,” she said. “You feel some warmth. You feel unity.”
The evening opened with a prayer.
“We come tonight holding these mothers up before you,” said Rev. Billy Strange. “We pray for them because God the hurt and the pain they deal with each day and every night.”
Tangela Sears, a long time anti-gun violence activist whose only son was recently killed, took to the podium to talk about the trauma, depression and mental health struggles she and the other parents face on a regular basis.
“It’s a new norm that we live and that new norm it takes us on all types of journeys,” said Sears. “We have mood swings. We alright in the a.m., but in the p.m. we’re another person.”
After the church service, the families marched through the streets of Liberty City chanting “Let our children live” and “We want justice.”
The march ended at a basketball court nearby, where a memorial gallery of black and white hand drawn photos of Miami-Dade’s victims of gun violence by Miami artist Chire Regans lined a chain link fence
Rontisha Brown wept in front of the drawing of her son, 16-year old Rakeem Brown.
“This is my life now,” she said. “My son is gone. I don’t have justice. This is just it.”
One-by-one the names, of the people killed by gun violence were called. Their family members stepped forward lighting a white candle in their memory.
Brown held her candle to the sky with one hand and clutched a framed picture of Rakeem in her other arm.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “So hard.”