Pastor Sheila Holmes, who was honored on June 4 for her work by the Operation Ceasefire anti-gun violence organization, had wanted to do something to stem the tide of shootings in her northside neighborhood in Paterson, the third largest city in New Jersey.
So about 12 years ago, when the majority of gun violence in Paterson was taking place on streets near Northside Community Christian Reformed Church, the congregation she served as pastor, Holmes organized a prayer ministry.
“After spending much time in personal prayer, one of the things I initiated approximately 12 years ago was community prayer and prayer-walking,” said Holmes,
Several other pastors and their churches joined Holmes and members of Northside to begin prayer-walking the community for two hours every Saturday morning.
As they walked, they would talk with people they met, and they would pray in front of businesses, homes, and hotspots where violence had erupted or might be brewing.
“After a couple of years of faithfully praying and ministering to people on the streets, we started to see the gun violence decrease in our neighborhood,” said Holmes, a member of the Christian Reformed Church’s Council of Delegates.
Holmes was among those who brought Operation Ceasefire to Paterson in 2006.
A national group with chapters in many of the most violent communities in the U.S., Operation Ceasefire has the goal of bringing law enforcement and the community together to "stop the next shooting before it happens."
“I was part of the Ceasefire organization before national Ceasefire came into Paterson,” said Holmes. “We supported what it wanted to do and got behind it.”
On June 4, more than 150 guests, in support of ending gun violence in Paterson, attended the Paterson Operation Ceasefire's 13th Annual Dinner Dance and Awards Ceremony at which Holmes and others were honored.
According to a news account, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver, who served as keynote speaker for the event, observed that New Jersey is again “in a public health crisis of guns and gun violence.”
Holmes echoed these words, commenting that the drop in gun violence she saw after they began prayer-walking 12 years ago has turned around, and things have gotten bad again.
Also recognized at the Operation Ceasefire dinner for his organization’s efforts to bring safety to Paterson was Curtis Sliwa, nationally recognized founder of the Guardian Angels, according to the news report.
Founded 40 years ago in New York City, the nonprofit organization boasts 5,000 members in 13 countries and 130 cities around the world. They have recently stepped up surveillance in several of Paterson’s most crime-ridden areas.
James Staton, pastor of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in Paterson, joined many years ago with Holmes to establish and expand Operation Ceasefire in their city. They both saw the need to find ways to bring the message and grace of Christ into the messy mix of violence in Paterson —- and Ceasefire was a way to do that.
“It was quite a process to get all of the nuts and bolts and screws together to begin Ceasefire and have it recognized [by politicians and the police],” said Staton. “We did a lot of prayer-walking, reaching out, and offering aid to people with little means.”
They would gather and hold prayer vigils at scenes of shootings. They organized gun buybacks and helped establish neighborhood watch programs that encouraged people to look out for one another and keep an eye out for signs of trouble in their neighborhood.
“We greet and listen to people and let them know there is another way for them to live,” said Staton. “We’re not just there for victims, but for those who [have broken the law] as well.”
As a result of their ongoing work, Holmes and Staton were recently appointed to serve as Crisis Incident Chaplains for the Paterson police and fire departments.
Holmes noted that their role as chaplains for the Paterson police and fire departments is not directly connected to Ceasefire.
“It is mainly connected to ministering to those first responders who are involved in traumatic experiences everyday and have no place to discuss their emotions and fears,” she said.
Staton recalled a time when they were called out as chaplains to speak with emergency personnel who responded to the suicide of a woman who had jumped from a local bridge: “These [emergency response] people are experiencing trauma, and we go in and help them to break it down and talk about what has happened,” he said. “When there is a shooting, we can also respond as pastors to the families.”
Another part of their work as chaplains is to train people in trauma awareness and resilience in learning how to deal with the abnormalities of life.
An important thing to point out, added Holmes, “is that my partner [Staton] and I cannot get involved in police matters without the proper authorities inviting us to participate.”
Given that their appointment as chaplains is a recent development, they are still sorting through what it means to be fully known as Crisis Incident Chaplains. But their goal is to gain the trust of the police, fire, EMT departments, and neighborhood communities in the city of Paterson.
“Personally,” said Holmes, “I believe we need to be proactive to be aware of and deal with people's emotional and mental situations instead of being reactive. I am hoping this position will do that for our first responders and individuals within the community.”
Keep in mind, Holmes added, that “the violence of our communities is because of hopelessness and helplessness, and this position can train leaders of church and community to be more sensitive and proactive to be available to help someone.”
Working together and prayer-walking the streets of Paterson has built a strong bond between Holmes and Staton. Regardless of the challenges, they have relied on their faith and have used it to serve as an antidote to the ongoing bloodshed caused by guns.
“Sheila and I have worked together for many years helping the ‘least of these,’” said Staton. “God has brought us together to work in the city. Iron has sharpened iron.
“We are like a ‘dynamic duo.’ But it is not about us. It is about God and the ability and talent to share God’s love with others.”