United We Stand

Published 5:18 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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Residents of two towns and one county who share identical fears of the growing threat of gun-related violence let their voices ring out here Wednesday evening.

Hertford County United (HCU) conducted prayer marches simultaneously in Ahoskie and Murfreesboro. HCU is a collaborative effort that joins local government leaders, law enforcement, faith based organizations, business owners, and other groups together to address and offer solutions to a recent rise in violent crimes, particularly those involving young people.

While Hertford County Sheriff Dexter Hayes (left) listens, Chowan University student Trevon Abraham talks about how powerful it was to see everyone coming together for the march in Murfreesboro. Staff Photo by Holly Taylor

Hundreds gathered in both towns where they marched down Main Street and then gathered to share ideas on how to tackle the problem as well seeking spiritual guidance through prayer.

In Ahoskie, Police Chief Jimmy Asbell said he’s been in law enforcement for over 30 years and he has witnessed a steady rise in violent crimes over the past five years.

“It’s heartbreaking to me. I feel for all the community,” he said. “I feel for our citizens who feel threatened just to come out of their homes in fear of what might happen. They shouldn’t have to feel that way.

“We have to stand united. This is a tug of war….good against evil,” Asbell added. “When I see the turnout we had for this march, I feel inspired that there are more of us than of those who want to tear us down. If we ban together on the good side of that tug of war, we can make a change.”

Asbell said he was appreciative of those in the local community that showed their solidarity by participating in the march against violence. He signaled out Ahoskie Mayor Weyling White for his efforts to make the town safer for residents and business owners and their customers.

“He brings a passion to our town,” Asbell stressed. “He is striving to make positive changes among our youth. I am impressed by his enthusiasm and his confidence that we are moving in a direction that will produce positive results.”

Asbell noted an alarming rise in acts of violence locally.

“It’s at an all-time high,” he said. “It is not in Ahoskie alone. It’s in our neighboring communities and across our state.”

He stressed that it will take partnerships such as Hertford County United as well as building relationships with state and federal agencies to help offset the rise in violence.

“We must come together to bring ideas and solutions,” Asbell said. “Law enforcement is looked upon to carry the brunt of finding solutions, but I also know that for change to happen, for us to help our youth recognize the dangers associated with gangs, guns and drugs we must have the support of the community. We all have to come together in action and come up with ideas and positive ways to make changes in the lives of our youth.”

Asbell said there is a need to offer more mentorship programs for local youth.

“We’re standing today in front of the Ahoskie Youth Center that Mayor White spearheaded as one of his ideas to bring about change,” Asbell noted.

He stressed that his department is “fully staffed and stand ready to be proactive in this battle against violence. Our officers are in our schools, they are speaking to our youth, they are mentoring to those who want to become involved with this battle.”

Asbell added while his officers are trained to handle all aspects of law enforcement, there is an emotional toll as well.

“They carry heavy hearts when they respond to and see the aftereffects of gun violence….finding dead bodies in the street,” he said.

On the flip side of that scenario, Asbell addressed instances where police officers across the country break their oath by committing violent acts themselves.

The Hertford County United prayer march was held Wednesday in Ahoskie (shown here) as well as in downtown Murfreesboro. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“Those instances shed a negative light upon our profession, but I can say with confidence that the Ahoskie Police Department is transparent in all of our actions and we do not conduct or condone any of that type of activity,” he stressed. “We want to partner with our community. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We want set an example for our youth to show them there’s a better way than the path they are taking.”

Asbell said the door to his office is always open and encouraged citizens to stop by and share their ideas and solutions to ways to end the violence.

Asbell closed with a prayer, asking God for guidance and hope.

“So many times we think that man can do this alone, but it is only through you, Father God, that change will come to our community. We need to recognize our shortcomings. We need to look within ourselves and be sure that we’re living the life we need to live and be shining examples of what we need to be so that those who are not can see Jesus in us,” Asbell prayed.

Jarvis Parker of Kingdom Building Ministry thanked all those within the Ahoskie community that joined together to seek answers to the growing wave of violence in the streets.

“If we work together we can accomplish great things,” Parker stated. “We’ve been silent too long; we need to speak out. If we see something going on within our neighborhoods we need to call the police. So many times we say we don’t want to be a snitch, but when you don’t snitch there’s another person likely to fall victim to a crime.”

Parker said he and his family lost a nephew to a violent act a few weeks ago.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just him but there are other young lives at stake,” Parker stated. “We’ve got more drive-by shootings than ever before. Together and through the grace of God we can stop this.”

Mayor White said he was very pleased with the turnout as well as the ongoing efforts to end the violence. He noted that the Ahoskie Youth Center is open and offers programs, games and snacks to local children and teens. To learn more about the programs offered there, contact the Ahoskie Town Hall at 252-332-5146.

“We’re looking to take back our streets,” White remarked. “This march is just the start. We’re looking at establishing additional mentorship opportunities for our youth as well as addressing food insecurity among young people. We’re going to expand our programs and our hours of operation here at the Ahoskie Youth Center.

“We know the gangs are here, but we’ve got to get at the root cause of this violence. Why are our young people joining gangs and choosing to participate in violent acts? Once we learn those answers I feel that we can turn the tide our way and make our town and our county a safer place to live and work,” White concluded.

In Murfreesboro, the crowd gathered on the grounds of Murfreesboro Baptist Church before beginning their march down Main Street. Older people had their walking sticks ready; younger kids had their comfy shoes on. The weather was cold and breezy, but did not deter participants from bundling up in anticipation for the march.

James ‘BJ’ Futrell, an organizer for the event and a member of Murfreesboro’s Town Council, said that he was thankful for the good turnout for the Wednesday evening event.

“This is a brand new start for Hertford County United. It’s people coming together that want to reclaim our community, want to restore our community, and want to break these chains. We want to bridge the gaps between the communities,” Futrell emphasized.

Yahmale Vaughan, who also helped organize Murfreesboro’s march, reminded the crowd of the reason for the gathering.

“We know that a lot is going on in the area where we live,” he said. “There’s a lot of gang activity. There’s a lot of violence. People are working very hard and very diligently to try to stop it. This affects everybody. From River Street to Jay Trail. From Murfreesboro to Ahoskie, Winton, Cofield, Severn, Scotland Neck. All around the entire area.”

“As the people pray today and talk, we’re also asking that you all will pray,” Vaughan continued. “Clear your mind. Clear your spirit. Ask the Lord to hear you. It says in the Bible, for God has not given us the spirit of fear but of love, power, and a sound mind. So this is what we’re trying to do. We’re not going to live in fear, and we’re not going to be subjected to violence.”

Pastor Jason Villegas of Murfreesboro United Methodist Church kicked off the march with a few remarks and prayer, focusing on the Hebrew word “shalom” which means “peace.” But peace, he said, is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness and connection and “enough for everyone.”

“Violence cannot drive out violence. Only love can do that,” Villegas emphasized.

Once the first amen was uttered, the large group of over 100 people began their trek down several blocks on Main Street. Chowan students, including the university’s football team, also came out to walk shoulder to shoulder with local members of the Murfreesboro community. The town police and fire department blocked off the road for the safety of the marchers.

As they walked past the businesses of Murfreesboro’s Main Street, church leaders from the community took turns sharing the megaphone to share words of scripture and prayer for the community. Those leaders included Rev. Sandy Outlaw of New Vision Ministries, Pastor John Porter of Meherrin Baptist Church, Pastor Wayne Brooks and Pastor Patty Ann Smith of Mt. Sinai Church of God, Deacon Greg Jordan of Parker’s Grove Baptist Church, and Rev. James Shearn of Jordan Grove Baptist Church.

The march concluded in the parking lot of Colonial Pharmacy. Murfreesboro Police Chief David Griffith and Hertford County Sheriff Dexter Hayes both spoke to the crowd to encourage community support.

“We just can’t end it here,” Chief Griffith said. “We have to continue to fight for our youth, for our county, for our town, for our citizens, for our visitors. We cannot solve all the problems going on in the community without help from our citizens.”

Griffith said they need to continue to help youth get back on track and stay out of trouble.

“This is a beautiful sight,” said Sheriff Hayes, “to see people that care about their community, people that won’t stand for violence.”

Hayes emphasized the importance of reaching out to neighbors and showing love to each other. He said youth can be hurt by peer pressure and bullying these days, and it’s tragic to see young lives cut short.

“I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m the sheriff of this county, but it’s about being human being and caring about people,” Hayes said. “Hopefully, we can change someone’s life.”

Chowan student and HCU member Trevon Abraham said the local community has felt very much like home, and it was powerful to see everyone coming together for the march. He encouraged people to check out HCU’s monthly meetings and to be on the lookout for more upcoming events.

Rev. Shirley Johnson of New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church concluded the event with one final prayer for the evening. She called on God for healing and deliverance, and a spark of change that would make a difference in the community.

After the event, many of the marchers lingered to continue speaking with each other, building and strengthening those bridges which connect everyone together.

Local ministers walk together along Murfreesboro’s Main Street on Wednesday where they were part of a unified effort that called for an end to a recent rash of violence. Staff Photo by Holly Taylor