On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Baruch Greenstein and other religious figures led some 500 attendees in prayer at Ocala Downtown Square to help promote an end to the violence that has recently rattled the city.
The vigil was organized by local religious leaders with the help of the Ocala Police Department as an effort to encourage community members to come forward with any information relating to four recent drive-by shootings.
“Where there is division, we cannot succeed. But where there is unity we cannot fail,” Greenstein said. “We need to all band together.”
The familial atmosphere in the square was one of hope throughout the 30-minute event. Several members of the community, including two young children, were invited on stage to pray for both the shooters and victims.
“I hope it’ll show unity in our community,” said Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham. “We don’t want violence in our community. We want it to give people courage to come forward and tell us what is going on.”
There have been four drive-by shootings in Ocala over the past several weeks. In early September, two boys, ages 4 and 8, were shot in their home. Another man, 23, was shot in the back of the head. All three are expected to recover.
“Ocala is a great a community,” said Kent Guinn, mayor of Ocala. “When there are tragedies and problems, we as a community come together as we did tonight. It’ll be taken care of, rest assured it will be.”
Citizens and law enforcement stood side-by-side displaying signs pleading for an end to the violence.
“It’s just horrible what is going on,” said Edwina Weems, an Ocala mother of four. “Life is too short to be playing the games they’re playing. It is terrible… I fear for my kids all the time.”
Weems’ was not the only sign visible in the crowd. A small number of Atheists were on hand to protest the vigil due to the involvement of religion and the police.
Ocala Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation both asked Chief Graham to either amend or cancel the vigil, citing that it was unconstitutional to call citizens to pray.
“We don’t have any problem with the vigil,” said Jean Porgal, organizer for the Ocala Atheists. “The fact that they advertised it as a prayer vigil is where the problem comes. We just think it crosses the line of separation of church and state.”
In an article on their website, FFRF asks the OPD to cancel the community prayer vigil as it imposed a religious ritual that could offend attendants and violated the separation of church and state.
Several members of the Ocala Atheists including Porgal were present at the vigil. Organizers as well as the OPD welcomed everyone to the event; however, some citizens who attended, like Steve Kline, were upset with the protest.
“If they don’t like it, they don’t have to come,” Kline said. “If they don’t want to pray they don’t have to. We’re in America. We’re supposed to be in a place of freedom of speech.”
Despite the disagreement over the vigil, both Kline and Porgal want the violence to stop. In an effort to gather more information, OPD is utilizing task forces and increasing patrols.
“We want a safe community,” Chief Graham said. “We are not going to tolerate violence. If you come to Ocala and try to commit crime…we’re going to put you in jail. Bring bond money.”
Twins Jada and Jaelyn Weems spend their birthday holding signs during the vigil. They live close to Ocala Place Apartments, where some of the shootings have occurred.
Captain Tara Woods of the Ocala Police Department helps cut the red ribbon used for the vigil.
Shirts worn by a group of attendees at the Prayer Vigil read, “No One Has Your Back Like Jesus.”
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn, left, talks to Edrige Rivers, 51, who lives in the neighborhood where the shootings have taken place.
Speakers at the vigil bow their heads and pray before the vigil begins in the Ocala Downtown Square.