Prayers encircle York City Police Department

Sean Philip Cotter

More than 100 people formed a ring all the way around the York City Police Department, some with heads bowed quietly while others prayed out loud.

Community activists Jamiel Alexander, Liz Morales-Alexander and Yareliz Morales organized the event, which took place at 7 p.m. Monday, brought together in large part by a Facebook invite. Alexander was at the protest rally in front of the police department last month, after controversial police shootings of several black men around the country spurred protests around the United States.

But his wife and her sister weren't able to go, so they all decided to put together a prayer vigil, in large part to show the other side of those feelings: that York City is one big community — including its police department, he said.

"We're praying for the community," Morales-Alexander said. "We're praying for the police."

When asked what she was praying for, Yareliz Morales had only one word.

"York," she said, pausing a second before continuing. "We're praying for unity."

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At 7 p.m., everyone in attendance circled around in front of the department. Alexander addressed the big ring of joined hands forming outside the station, thanking everyone and talking about the importance of solidarity. His sister-in-law translated into Spanish.

A familiar face to many quietly slipped in beside Alexander: York City Police Chief Wes Kahley, in street clothes, joined in the circle, bowing his head in prayer as a couple of local pastors spoke.

"Any time something positive can happen, we're here to help," Kahley told The York Dispatch after the initial prayer ring came apart. "They're supporting the police, they're supporting the the city."

Along with Kahley, several other city officials were present, including councilman Michael Helfrich, community relations director Edquina Washington and Jim Tice, who's been tapped to lead the city's anti-gang-violence CeaseFire York initiative. All played the role of participants, shaking some hands, patting some backs and chatting with others in attendance, but all ceded speaking duties to the citizens who shown up.

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A few people led those congregated in prayer; first, in English, Ramona Kinard, and then, in Spanish, Jose Echevaria. Then city resident Wayne Wilson addressed the attendees.

"The weather outside affects us all," he said. "What happens in the city affects us all."

He told The York Dispatch that he'd previously worked with the police department as a community liaison. He stressed that honesty is a fundamental key, a first step toward making the community he grew up in a better place.

"I talk to the youth and say, 'You must be accountable for your actions,'" he said. "I talk to the police and say, 'You must be honest with your prejudices.'"

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The prayer circle stretched out. The gates to the back of the police department, usually closed to house police equipment, were open, and the organizers encouraged everyone to form a big ring around the whole big building. Everyone had to spread out; it would take at least twice the number of people who showed up to hold hands all the way around the building. But the organizers were encouraged; they told everyone the gaps between people represented community members yet to get involved and friends who had died in violence.

After that ring came apart, a couple of York City police officers on their way out to their cruiser stopped for a minute, holding hands with just a few people standing near their vehicle, and prayed quietly. A few others shuffled over to join them before everyone exchanged handshakes and hugs, and the two officers hopped into their cruiser and went to work.

— Sean Cotter covers York City for The York Dispatch. Contact him or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.