ATLANTIC CITY — Five days after 13-year-old Angel Mercado-Santiago was shot and killed just outside its doors, the local community gathered at Union Baptist Temple for a joint vigil and rally in his memory. Speakers expressed hope, love and anger before a capacity crowd, including Mercado-Santiago’s family, and at one point the entire gathering pledged to ratify a community statement resolving to meet again on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday to “draft action plans to establish a peaceful community.”
At the same time, Imam Amin Muhammad of the Masjid Muhammad, in Atlantic City, called out public officials and leaders, while 2nd Ward Councilman Marty Small called out the fathers of city youth.
Mercado-Santiago was shot Wednesday while walking home from the Pennsylvania Avenue School. Jerome Ford, 14, is charged with his murder.
The victim, whom loved ones called Nuco, had been living with family in Atlantic City for the past two years after moving from Puerto Rico for a better life. His family said they were not ready to speak publicly but thanked those who have reached out with support.
“We come before you humbled by the mysteries of life and death,” the Rev. William Williams III said in his invocation. “Help us accept what we cannot understand. Comfort the mothers, the fathers, family members, friends and our city. Help us all to see the hope of life beyond grief.”
The Rev. Eric McCoy, president of the Atlantic County and Vicinity Fellowship of Churches, said the missing link in the community is “respect.”
“We ignore our children and the children don’t respect us,” McCoy said. “If the children don’t respect us, they don’t respect each other. ... What we must do is leave here and take a message of love to the streets.”
The Rev. Dave Delaney, of Central United Methodist Church, challenged the crowd to talk to someone, “especially if he looks different from you, and next time we have a rally to come together for peace, say, ‘I’m going to call you, email you, Facebook you, and we will not let the violence continue.”
Rabbi Aaron Krauss, of Beth El Synagogue in Margate, told those in attendance, “The last time I was in this church was before some people here were born. Through that door where the pastor’s office is, I was asked to go and sit down with the speaker. And that speaker was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“(King) still speaks to us today,” Krauss said. “The hate must be replaced by love. The doubt must be replaced by faith. The young man who lost his life must be remembered, because we pray to God he will be the last one in this community who will die under these circumstances. It’s up to us to be his hands, his feet, his voice.”
The Rev. Collins A. Days, of Second Baptist Church, who will be awarded the county’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award on Friday, said the Mercado-Santiagos “represent a whole lot of other families who sat in the same place of loss, hurt and tremendous disappointment, because we as a community have failed them. ... Until we implement a plan to turn the city around, trouble will be with us always. Trouble will not stop until we stop trouble.”
Mayor Don Guardian called it “a very said day in our community when, in broad daylight, a child takes the life of another. ... (King) committed his life to nonviolence, and you’ll watch all the talking heads on TV and read everything written in the newspaper talking about how far we’ve come since his death. But for Angel Mercado-Santiago, we have not come far enough.”
For his part, Muhammed said that “I see so many people here, speakers, people gathered ... I don’t see them in the streets.”
He recalled Delaney telling him that he wanted to visit the city’s neighborhoods at night.
“‘I got you. Come one let’s go,’” Muhammed told him. “At midnight, we were in Back Maryland, Stanley Holmes, Carver Hall. When a problem exists in the community, you have to have the courage to face them. Not when it’s convenient, not when you feel like it, not on your day off. Clapping hands, singing and dancing, that’s not going to change anything until you work. ... The only way (youth) can see you really care is to leave your comfort zone and get in there.”
City leaders, he said, “I don’t get calls from them. Not to condemn them, but to wake them up. If we’re dead, we can expect our youth to be dead.”
After 1st District Freeholder Ernest Coursey and Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle spoke, Small gathered several members of City Council on stage.
“The first time something is going on, people say, ‘What is council doing?’ Well, to be honest, government doesn’t raise your children,” Small said. “There are a lot of scared men in this community, scared to step up.”
Added Small, “We need parents to stop being enablers. ... I challenge the community, especially the men: Stop and raise your children.”
Staff writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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