Hands Across Lehigh unites neighborhoods deeply impacted by violence

By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Amid the holding of hands, uplifting songs of praise and walking united across five miles of North Philadelphia, there were moments of both celebration and reflection.

On one hand, all benefitted from the non-violent message of the third annual Hands Across Lehigh Walk for Peace on April 25. The entourage of some 600 Catholic school children, parents and community members were cheered along by those from the Port Richmond to Strawberry Mansion neighborhoods.

But there were also contemplative moments. Of the nearly 400 who have died on the city’s streets due to violence, more than 100 were related or known to many of these North Philadelphia students. Thus, there was silence and even a few gasps as their names were read one by one.

Sister Nancy Fitzgerald, S.S.J., principal of St. Martin de Porres School, said this made the day bittersweet for the hundreds of participants.

“The march was very successful,” Sister Nancy said. “We had many activities that led up to it that taught the students about non-violence. During the march, however, we had to acknowledge all the families who lost a loved one. Many more knew someone who had died because of violence. I would say that out of the 372 who lost their lives in the city, a substantial amount were from these communities. So that was a somber note.”

On a lighter note, the day’s event caused the communities involved to look ahead in hope. Each of the six schools were encouraged to design peace oriented T-shirts in a specific color.

The students themselves also represented many heritages including African-Americans, Latino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, caucasians and even some Native American students, according to the principal.

“Since they were wearing all those colorful T-shirts it was like a rainbow going across Lehigh Avenue,” Sister Nancy said.

The activities at the schools that led up to the event were equally significant. Last Friday students engaged in a “Fun Day” around conflict resolution issues. Some participated in school fundraisers in which they made posters, banners and signs for Saturday’s march. Others culminated service learning projects on the topic of peace.

Throughout the school year many participated in peer mediation initiatives that will continue until the close of the 2008-2009 school year.

Among those who participated in Saturday’s event was vocalist Vincent Cannady. The 18-year-old senior at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia is an alumnus of St. Martin de Porres School. This September he will be majoring in music at the prestigious Berkley School of Music in Boston. He was on hand Saturday to sing his interpretation of the classic, “America, the Beautiful.”

“I wanted to come back to my old school to sing because this is a march that unifies people,” Cannady said. “I am always willing to come back to St. Martin de Porres. The school has done so much for me. They have always encouraged me in whatever I do, and even though I graduated years ago, they are still behind me.”

Cannady said that the march has special significance to the students who have lost a loved one. He said that since the Lehigh Avenue area tends to be one of the most violent areas of the city, the school populations involved in Saturday’s march were harder hit than those in other neighborhoods.

“I felt proud to lend my voice to be part of something that was positive,” Cannady said.

Also returning to his alma mater to donate his oratorical gifts was Brandon Moultrie, a senior at Roman Catholic High School. Sister Nancy said that Moultrie gave an inspiring speech about why students should steer clear of violence and implement the conflict resolution and peer negotiation techniques they were learning in school.

“It’s great when they hear this message from a teenage perspective,” Fitzgerald said. “Sometimes the children will listen to a younger person better about a message like this.”

The two-hour march began outside St. Martin de Porres Church at 2300 W. Lehigh Ave. It continued along Lehigh Avenue and ended around noon at St. Anne Church, 2300 E. Lehigh Ave. The six schools represented were St. Martin de Porres, St. Anne, Visitation B.V.M., Ascension of Our Lord, St. Hugh and LaSalle Academy.

During the afternoon portion of the program the students heard from Father Joseph Logrip, vicar for Philadelphia-North, and Msgr. Hugh Shields, vicar for Hispanic Catholics. They also heard from the school’s alumni and representatives from various community organizations, including Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS).

BLOCS is an independent scholarship organization that believes all children should have access to a high-quality education in a safe and nurturing environment, regardless of race, religious belief or income. It raises funds so that financially disadvantaged children in the Philadelphia region have access to a results-driven education.

About 70 businesses and corporate partnerships support BLOCS as it assists children in the community.

For more information visit www.blocs.org.

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at ArleneEdmonds@aol.com.