Armed with palm leaves and wearing orange T-shirts with “Love your neighbor as yourself” printed on them, nearly 100 people marched around one of the toughest wards in Paterson, N.J. It was the annual Operation CeaseFire March.
The group, which included police officers, residents, pastors, and community leaders, stopped to pray at each major intersection. Some offered palms to those who were watching.
The march always falls on Palm Sunday weekend. “We are crying over this ward as Jesus cried over Jerusalem,” said Rev. John Algera, a pastor at Paterson’s Madison Avenue Christian Reformed Church.
The march started in 2005, modeled after a similar program in Chicago. For awhile, shootings decreased, but around 2011, violence in the neighborhood went from bad to worse. Algera attributed the increase in violence to a couple of things. “The economy kept getting worse, which produced more armed robberies committed by young kids,” he said. Then a quarter of the police staff was laid off. “We went from 500 police officers to 375,” Algera explained.
In 2014, Paterson had 24 homicides and about 100 non-fatal shootings. So far in 2015, there have been three homicides and 16 non-fatal shootings. Despite the increase in violent crime, the march has continued, serving as a plea to stop the violence.
This past January, 25 new officers were hired to serve Paterson. They took part in race relations training led by several pastors, including Algera. Police director Jerry Speziale and acting police chief William Fraher both participated in this year’s march. “The CeaseFire March has been one of the most significant police partnerships I’ve seen,” Algera said. “It takes a consolidated effort to tip a neighborhood.”
It was cold the day before Palm Sunday, and not as many were out to receive the palms as in years past, Algera observed. But the palms were still offered. “We share that palm as a cry for help to the Lord to save us from this violence.”