By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
More than 150 people gathered Sunday night, February 26, at Houston Avery Park to remember Janyia Wilson, the 16-year-old Escambia County High School student athlete who was shot to death recently by a teen she had been dating.
Friends, classmates, family members — including the young shooting victim’s mother, Mary “Camille” Johnson — and others paid tribute to the young woman by lighting candles and releasing balloons into the twilight sky.
Tawanna Thomas, Janyia’s great-aunt, said prior to the event that gun violence, especially among young people, has reached a crisis stage.
“Our young people are now going from the classroom to the cemetery,” she said. “There’s a lot of it here in Atmore. I just don’t understand how all these young folks are getting their hands on all these guns. I know it’s the older people who give them to them. We have to do better.”
Atmore City Councilwoman Eunice Johnson, the only elected official to attend the candlelight service, said the community’s youth need a steady dose of prayer.
“We need to keep our young people in our prayers,” said Johnson, whose husband, Charles was one of three pastors to speak Sunday night and is related to the victim. “We need to pray that God will give them direction and guidance. We need to ask the Lord to sustain them in these times we’re living in.”
Pastor Johnson of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, Greater Mount Triumph Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Willie Hawthorne and Brandon Tanner, an associate pastor at Empowerment Tabernacle, each delivered words of comfort and support to Janyia’s family, and a few family members and friends later delivered brief remarks.
Only about 50-75 people had shown up as the event’s starting time approached, but a steady flow continued until after 6 p.m. until the room around the park’s gazebo was crowded.
“As you stand where you’re standing today, pray within your hearts, within your minds, for her mother and the rest of the family,” Hawthorne said. “Try to provide the strength she needs to get through this. There’s nothing any of us can say that will make it easier.”
Pastor Johnson also spoke directly to Camille Johnson and other family members.
“It’s a hard road,” he said. “But you are loved, you are prayed for. It could be, just could be, the light that has been taken from us can be God’s example for somebody else. It could have been my child, it could have been somebody else’s child. You don’t have to be strong; we’ll be with you and strengthen you the best we can.”
Tanner said prior to the start of the service that such events are also tough on preachers or others who officiate.
“It’s hard, especially being somebody that didn’t get to live their life,” he said. “Every situation is different. As a pastor, you can never really prepare for it; you always have to be led by the Spirit. We want to let Camille know she is not alone in this.”
Pastor Hawthorne spoke again near the end of the service, focusing on gun violence.
“We used to get in scuffles, get in fights,” he said. “We would fight, then roll on the ground, then fight and roll on the ground. The next day, we would be talking and laughing with each other. The only weapon we had back then was a sling shot or a stick. We didn’t know anything about guns except that guns kill.
“We need to respect each other more. Remember that a life was taken from us too soon. Let that be the first thing you think about in the morning, and the last thing you think about before you go to sleep at night. We have to learn to love one another.”