CHAMPAIGN — There weren't exactly 1,000 voices praying in Douglass Park Saturday morning, but there were well over 100 people gathered to celebrate fatherhood.
And on a beautiful late spring day, they raised their voices in praise of good role models and in asking God to continue to protect the very community that has recently been under fire, literally, as recently as six days earlier.
"Please have mercy on Champaign-Urbana right now," prayed Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Rickey Parks. "Touch the lives and hearts and the young people who have guns and want to shoot each other. Move on to the streets, the alleys, and in the cars and before they can pull the trigger, touch their hearts."
For about two hours, those gathered, including politicians and preachers, listened to Scripture and motivational speakers talk and sing about the importance of fathers being present in the lives of their children.
Although this was the fourth year for the Father's Day weekend event, its significance took on greater meaning in the wake of five separate shootings the weekend before that left six young men wounded.
"We're not reacting to what's happening. We are proactive," said the Rev. Vince Elam, pastor of the Lighthouse Restoration Center in Champaign. "We believe to be pre-prayed is to be prepared."
"We believe that prayer is the key to every situation we're dealing with. Fathers have been absent in the lives of their children for a long time. That's cross-cultural. We see a great number of African-American fathers who are missing," said Elam. "We wanted to celebrate the fathers who, a lot of times, are not celebrated for their achievements."
Fellow organizer Herbert "Hub" Burnett, elder at the Greater Holy Temple Church in Urbana, said event organizers chose "fathers whose audio is matching their video" as their award winners.
Speaker Verdell Jones Sr. of Champaign brought his wife and two sons, ages 23 and 19, to the event with him.
"People recognize demonstration better than a definition. What we do speaks so loudly. What our youth in our community need to see is a consistent, concerted effort by people coming together who are concerned for their future, doing more when we leave these meetings," Jones said.
Retired Champaign Police Chief Don Carter also spoke on the importance of the father to the family and used the example of orphaned children in Ethiopia to illustrate his point.
"If something happens to the father, the family simply cannot survive. They cannot feed themselves. Even in this country ... other problems with fatherless households can be just as devastating. As a community, we should do everything we can do to make sure every child is raised by a mom and a dad," said Carter.
Along those lines, Jonte Rollins of ACCESS Initiative talked about tasks that people could take on to help promote stable, safer neighborhoods.
Attendees were given bookmarks with suggestions: develop neighborhood canvassing teams to pass out information about gun violence and community safety, develop a network of African-American men willing to interact with young African-American adults, create teams of social workers willing to offer support for families affected by gun violence, and create opportunities to support mothers and grandparents affected by gun violence.
Speaking to the importance of positive male role models, Burnett pointed out that even gang members are leaders.
"A leader is going to lead. You just don't know which way they're going to lead," he said.
Those Champaign-Urbana men recognized this year for their fathering abilities are: the Rev. Dr. Harold Davis, Emmitt D. Elam, Huston L. Johnson Jr., Pastor Ernest Jones, Elder Larry D. Jones, Marquise Lowe, Frank McCurry, Daniel Mitchell, Devon Wayne Turner and the late Rev. Lundy Savage.