Monday's meeting began with a somber tone. The reading of eight names: names of victims who lost their lives to violence. The youngest was just 14; the oldest was 32.
Started this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Youth Violence Prevention Network is a church-based, community action group that promotes nonviolence, and is dedicated to helping teenagers and young adults achieve their goals and dreams.
"It starts with loving young people, " said founding Pastor Zachary K. Bruce, Sr. "We have a common vision to help young people achieve their goals in life and live up to their fullest potential."
The group seeks to help youth establish safe ways to deal with conflicts and differences, and to share the importance of nonviolence in the community. Members work with young people and adults looking at how and why violence occurs in our communities, and also at ways to prevent it.
Every meeting begins with a silent prayer to remember the victims and their families. After the names and ages of victims are shared, those who knew them tell their stories and share how their deaths have affected family and friends.
Currently the group has more than 100 members — 80 percent of them young people between the ages of 10 and 30. Minister Daniel Dean is the executive director and Minister Marcel McCants, 24, serves as the assistant director.
Bruce said he started the group after having a strong feeling on Martin Luther King Day that God was calling for a response to the deaths of young African American males. Bruce knew that three young Black men had recently been killed.
"This is a church based effort and we felt we had to make an organized response to prevent violence," Pastor Bruce said. "So we called on the youth during service for real community change, and the next week about 45 people came — about 10 adults and 45 youth. We made a commitment this would be a daily love campaign," At this first meeting in January, the youth and adults came up with 111 written solutions to crises and 12 summary solutions. The following week they added 14 more so now there are 125 written solutions to youth violence. These solutions to conflict are posted at their My Space page at www.myspace.com/youth_violence_prevention.
"Anyone can go online and look at these solutions to conflict," Bruce said.
Bruce said he had met a teenager who wanted to commit suicide. But after he spent some time listening and talking with her, she turned around her whole spirit. Now she is working on her vision and goals for the future.
"It doesn't take a lot, but it takes a lot of love," he said. "Take a young person to dinner, make a phone call to a young person, a kind word, money to buy a book, everybody can do something and it starts in the homes."
During Bruce's childhood, when his parents were splitting up and moving to divorce, a pastor arranged for him and his brother to stay the night at his home.
"That one night was a transforming night for me because there wasn't a father in the home, but there was a man in the community who cared enough about me to let me spend the night and show me the love," Bruce said. "So that one evening for me was a transforming evening because of love.
"That's why we say this is a daily love campaign, the greatest answer is love, that God is love. So what we want to do is love these babies, get them out of harms way, and have on ongoing responsible relationship with them."
The network has formed seven smaller groups, including: hurt, pain and healing with Sarah Freeman, street gang life with Ministers Dean and McCants, publicity and outreach with chair Ebonee Heller and direct action with Mary Flowers and Tamika Dean. Other groups focus on family support, fund development and network building.
The Direct Action group sent a letter to the Superintendent of Public Schools asking that non-violence courses be declared mandatory in elementary, middle and high school levels. Members also sent a letter to the mayor expressing their concern about the gang bill HB2712.
"It starts in the homes, we're calling for fathers to be responsible," Bruce said. "If your baby is walking the street and you're the daddy or the mamma, you have a moral mandate to be out there trying to do all you can to save that child."
"We have to teach them at all ages that non-violence is the way," Bruce said. "If they're going to have classes on history, etc. that's mandatory and yet people are dying. "We need to make sure that kids take at least one nonviolence course before they graduate and make it mandatory.
"We discovered that there is a lot of hurt, these are hurting people who are picking up a gun, these are hurting people that wanna get at somebody, and we need find out why are our kids hurting, why do they have so much anger and pain." Pastor Bruce said. "It's youth intervention, these are young people that need spiritual fathers and mothers, people that love and care about them to find out why they're hurting."
Last Monday, Sen. Adam Kline and James Bible, president of the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP, came to the meeting to talk with the youth. In addition, 20 youth from other countries attended including Israel, Palestine and Ireland where youth also have suffered greatly from violence.
"There needs to be a consistent forum where young people can grieve and express their anger and pain so that's why we meet weekly," Bruce said. "This is a daily campaign to reach out to young folks, loving them, helping them fulfill their dreams, promoting nonviolence and getting at the practical and systemic reason why there's violence so that's our ongoing activity."
The network has partnered up with Seeds of Compassion, the Seattle Chapter of the NAACP, the mayor's effort to address violence and Black-on-Black Crime Coalition and King County Councilmember Larry Gossett. A Clergy Action Network, which has brought together 13 churches and religious groups is working to reaching faith communities.
Next up for the Youth Violence Prevention Network is a mentoring program which aims to recruit 100 responsible men to befriend and support young men. To learn more or to volunteer, call Pastor Bruce at 206-937-0201.
The Youth Violence Prevention Network meets at 6 p.m. every Monday at the Freedom Church of Seattle, 9601 35th Ave. S.W. in West Seattle. Come along to share experiences of grief and loss, express feelings, and talk with others who have experienced similar circumstances. Pizza is provided. You don't have to be a member of the church or a Christian to attend; all faiths are welcome.