- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

A church in Southeast has canceled its 22nd annual Unifest celebration because of a spate of violence in the District.

The Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia will replace the event, which has become one of the largest celebrations of black culture on the East Coast, with memorial services and a citywide day of prayer.

“We cannot possibly hold this celebration and carry on business as usual in the face of the atrocities our community is dealing with today,” said the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, the church’s pastor.

Mr. Wilson announced the cancellation yesterday at a press conference where his church gathered about 20 ministers of the Alliance of Southeast Ministers to denounce the increase in killings of the city’s children, including that of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie. Chelsea was watching television with her aunt on May 3 when a stray bullet came through a window of her aunt’s home and struck her in the head.

Unifest usually draws about 400,000 people, but the churches have decided to take a somber mood this summer.

Chelsea’s death “symbolizes the ills facing our community today,” Mr. Wilson said. “Our children are afraid to go outside to play, to go to school and even to sit inside their homes and watch television.”

Since January, 44 persons younger than 25 have been slain in the District. As of yesterday, 75 homicides have been reported since the beginning of the calendar year, according to statistics compiled on the Metropolitan Police Department’s Web site.

“This is totally unacceptable,” Mr. Wilson said. “This cannot be tolerated.”

The group of ministers blamed the increase in homicides and other violent crimes on a “broken” educational system and unemployment.

“So, there is nothing to celebrate this Unifest season,” the ministers said.

One local pastor quoted from the Scripture 2 Chronicles 7:14. “If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

Unifest was started in 1982 to unify the Southeast community and celebrate what the group calls “the history and accomplishments of the once-proud Anacostia neighborhood.”

“This year at the 11th hour — three weeks before Unifest — we have decided to stop and shift this unity movement to a different focus,” Mr. Wilson said.

This year, Unifest has been renamed to Uni-love, and a memorial walk on June 5 will replace the annual parade. The booths, which in the past have offered a wide assortment of food, now will distribute awareness literature and job applications.

Uni-love begins June 5.

June 4 will be dedicated as a day of prayer.

“This is for the citizens who read the paper and say, ‘What can we do?’ This is what you can do,” Mr. Wilson said. “We have a lot of pain out here. We are asking every house of worship to open for a day of prayer. We want to have this whole city praying.”

The church leaders also will try to raise $3 million in 30 days to provide 5,000 youths with summer jobs. They will organize city agencies and organizations to offer job training, summer camps and recreational activities for the District’s youths.

Mr. Wilson said he hopes the creation of jobs will hinder the violence.

“We are also calling upon every citizen, business church or organization to make a monetary contribution for summer jobs for our youths to augment the $10 million already raised for 5,000 summer jobs by the D.C. Department of Employment Services,” he said.

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