Members of 26 faith communities in Lexington gathered for an annual assembly Thursday night in Heritage Hall with a laser-like focus on one goal: a commitment from Mayor Jim Gray to implement a nationally-recognized violence prevention program.
Punctuated by call-and-response moments, the event was part Sunday morning church service and part moment of truth for local policymakers.
"What are we here to do?" emcees called out.
"Rise up and build!" the audience chanted back.
BUILD – that’s Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-Action – was among the driving forces behind the city’s creation of an affordable housing trust fund in 2014. Thursday, the audience in the Lexington Convention Center hoped for a repeat of that victory, only this time on the issue of violence. Last year homicides ticked up to 28, a record the city appears on track to beat again.
In 2017, the mayor was absent from the alliance's Nehemiah Action Assembly. This time around, he sat – along with Police Chief Lawrence Weathers and other officials – and listened as citizens spoke about their experiences.
One 43-year resident of the Radcliffe subdivision off Russell Cave Road recounted her shock at finding her home riddled with bullet holes. "I raised my children there. It was always a safe neighborhood. Today, that is no longer true," she said.
By night’s end, the assembly heard what it wanted to hear.
Gray promised to complete a required preliminary analysis with an eye toward contracting with the National Network for Safe Communities. Advocates of the NNSC anti-violence program say its evidence-based strategy of direct engagement between law enforcement, social service providers, and active street group members has paid off in Tennessee, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other states across the country.
"I as mayor know that we need so much work done," the 6th District Congressional candidate said. "Your presence and your commitment is a very, very, very big deal."
The program comes with a price tag (a 2015 Lexington Herald-leader article put the cost at roughly $180,000 without any federal grants), but BUILD treasurer Belinda Snead sounded confident the program will become a reality in Lexington.
"We're very persistent and dogged people," she told WUKY. "When (Mayor Gray) committed in front of 2,000 people, he committed for the city."
BUILD is also seeking an expansion of the city’s needle exchange program.