The message that “God loves you and so do we” was heard over and over again Sunday as survivors of homicide victims and victims of other crimes came together for the annual Crime Victims Memorial Service, held this year at New Community Church on the north side of Pine Bluff.
The annual service kicked off “National Crime Victims Rights Week” across the country, and in Pine Bluff as well, thanks to a proclamation from Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr.
“I wish there was a time and a place where services like this are no longer needed,” Redus said before reading the proclamation.
Sponsored by Healing Place Ministries, the Victim Witness Division of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Area Agency on Aging for Southeast Arkansas, the service honored the memory of 20 homicide victims in Jefferson and Lincoln counties in 2011.
“Long after the funeral is done, and even after the trial is over, the families of victims still need support,” said the Rev. David Morgan of Healing Place Ministries as he explained that each family would receive a Prayer Shawl, crocheted or knitted by women from Methodist churches across the state, as well as from Texas.
“They prayed constantly as they crocheted or knitted those shawls,” he said. “They are people who love you, who are concerned about you, who care about you, and who are praying for you.”
The theme of this year’s crime victims rights week is “Extending the Vision, Reaching Every Victim,” and Yvonne Glien, a victim advocate for Healing Place Ministries, said the theme “captures the spirit and resolve needed to reach our common goal of reaching each victim in need of hope and help, one victim at a time.”
A victim of domestic abuse, Tonya Johnson Simmons said that when crimes are committed, particularly homicides, people frequently point their finger at the parents of the accused person, blaming them for the actions of their child.
“These are two families that have lost someone because one person is dead, and the other is locked up,” Simmons said. “We all need to me more concerned about one another.”
The Rev. Jesse Turner, pastor of Elm Grove Baptist Church and executive director of Interested Citizens for Voter Registration, said “homicides and crimes damage the image of Pine Bluff,” and blamed domestic violence, drugs and gangs for the crimes.
“In our community, black males are dying too soon, they’re dying too often, and they’re dying too young,” Turner said.
Of the 20 homicide victims last year in Jefferson and Lincoln counties, 16 were black males.
As is done every year during the memorial service, the names of the victims were read aloud, this year by Pine Bluff Assistant Chief of Police Ivan Whitfield and Jefferson County Chief Deputy Sheriff Stanley James, and family members of each victim were asked to stand and be recognized.
Family members and friends of about two-thirds of last year’s victims attended the service Sunday, and about the rest, Rev. David Morgan said “for some of them, the pain is still too bad. They’re still hurting too much.”
After the reading of the names, the Rev. Edna Morgan unveiled the 2011 memorial wall with the names of all the victims inscribed on it.
Also each year, a victim advocate, a person who works with victims, is honored during the service.
Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter presented that award, saying that “it’s important for victims to have a voice.”
Hunter said the Victim Witness Division of his office is there to provide that, and to guide families through the criminal justice process.
This year’s victim advocate, Christa Menotti, “was a co-worker for several years, and then was an employee of mine,” Hunter said.
“She initially worked with sex crimes, which was difficult enough, but later worked with the victims of homicides, to help them begin the healing process.”
Menotti is now the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center, a job she took last month.
She said she has “a passion for victims. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do what I do.”