By Shannon Jenkins
With gospel music spilling from speakers and local church leaders offering inspirational messages, the atmosphere at Tara Stadium on Saturday evening resembled a Sunday morning service.
A spirited crowd of parents and area residents gathered at the football stadium to offer prayer for the new school year, which began today, while education, county and church officials presided over the prayer vigil.
Eldrin Bell, chairman of Clayton County Board of Commissioners, welcomed the crowd with encouraging words.
"We're going to keep on keeping on," he said in reference to the community overcoming recent gang violence.
Last year 14-year-old Forest Park High freshman Krystal Williams and 18-year-old Mundy's Mill High senior Larry Bishop Jr. were killed in separate incidents.
Bell said the prayer vigil was organized to "let us focus on the new leadership of tomorrow and not the gangs that seek to destroy our community."
Superintendent of Education Barbara Pulliam said the service was the "right start for the school year."
"It's an important part of the community coming out and letting our children know how important they are to us and how much we care about them," she said. "It takes everybody in the village. It's not just the teachers, the schools, the principals, the superintendent, the county commissioners. It's our moms and dads, our grandfathers our grandmothers. And it's the children, too. They have to care enough about their education because we care enough about them."
One such student was Ariana Santiago from Mundy's Mill High School, who received a standing ovation from the crowd for her stirring speech.
"I've come to the realization that before I can change the world I must first change the chaos around me," she said. "It's time for us teens to take authority and start respecting the authority ... Not on my watch will be an era of the lost and leaderless ... We are not destined for destruction."
Along with Santiago, the vigil included other guests such as André Landers, senior pastor of New Birth South Metropolitan Church; Dean Haun, senior pastor at First Baptist Jonesboro; state Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro; Donald Battle, pastor of Divine Faith Ministries; Pastor Diane Collins, Faith Walk Ministries; Rick Stone, associate pastor and minister of music at First Baptist Jonesboro; the praise team from Divine Faith Ministries; and Erica Davis, chair of the Clayton County School Board.
Among the parents to attend the service were Rosetta Thomas and Linda Smith.
Thomas, the mother of a 14-year-old freshman at Jonesboro High School, said everyone was sending up prayer for God to protect their children.
"We need a lot of prayer because so many things are happening," She said. "We need to steer our kids. There are so many temptations out there."
"Kids need to know there's something else to turn to besides drugs and crime," said Smith, whose 11-year-old son is a fifth-grader at Callaway Elementary School. "They need to know they can depend on the Lord."