"It's an uncomfortable issue...no parent should have to bury their child," said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in his opening remarks at the Essence Festival's Mother's Prayer Vigil: Love, Loss and Life.
The program served as a tribute to the mothers who lost their children to gun violence in New Orleans. The vigil addressed the pain and hurt of these women, but also offered support and musical uplift. Performances by gospel artist Lexi and a local brass band, prayer led by Pastor Debra Morton, words of comfort from Reverend Al Sharpton and ESSENCE editors Vanessa Bush and Dawnie Walton, and testimony from the mothers made for a powerful experience.
Throughout his opening and closing remarks, Mayor Landrieu reassured the audience of grieving mothers that "the lives of young African american men are important. They are important to the country and we as a nation have to speak that loudly and clearly."
"I pledge to you with Mitch Landrieu and others...you are not alone," Reverend Al Sharpton echoed, "you are just as important as anyone else in this nation."
Tina Miner, mother of the late Dwight Miner, who was murdered 22 months ago at age 22, was relieved by the vigil, remarking, "Coming to events like this gives you a sense that you are not alone and a sense of belonging."
Miner lost two brothers to violence but said, "losing a child was a inhuman experience. You are searching for a heartbeat. It just can't be real."
She describes Dwight as "a momma's boy who was wonderful and smart. I just don't understand who would want to kill my child, he was never in any kind of trouble."
Dwight was in his second semester of college when he died. He often changed his mind on what profession he wanted to pursue but, before he passed, he told his mother he wanted to be a dialysis specialist.
"He was only ever concerned with wanting to help other people," Miner said.
Sharon Massenberg, another victim's mother, took the stage and offered next steps for mothers like Miner.
"We are dealing with the same pain," she said. "Don't let anyone tell you it will be alright. Gun violence will never be ok in this city. I am here to tell you to pick yourself up and dust yourself up. I am still waiting for answers but, until then, I am being very active. Along with an excellent group, Helping Mothers Heal, I have a sisterhood of women who understand my pain."
Pastor Debra Morton asked the mothers to get on their feet and join her in a special prayer.
While the gospel choir continued, the mothers were invited to line-up and post a picture of their children on the wall of remembrance. The emotions varied: Some cried, others rejoiced, but they were all united with the power of their strength.
The program ended with the group of mothers marching behind a brass band to the tune of "I'll Fly Away," a message of hope for the journey they traveled and will continue.
"We have to fight now," Miner said, "Any event from this day on concerning the mayor and mothers, I'll be there!"