ST. PETERSBURG — It started more than a year ago with the Rev. Louis Murphy's vision: Get out of the churches and onto the streets of south St. Petersburg to spread the word of God and end violence in the community.
Murphy, pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, rallied other ministers to join the crusade. A coalition of nearly 70 churches of varying denominations and races committed to the cause.
On Sunday evening, the group wrapped up a week of nightly revivals across south St. Petersburg with a mass baptism at North Shore Park.
"Hopefully with prayer, we can bring the violence to a stop," said Evelyn Thompson, an elder at Bethel Community Baptist Church.
About 50 people were baptized in the waters of Tampa Bay on Sunday. Many there said the work in south St. Petersburg had only begun.
Before the lines of baptismal candidates were led into the water, Murphy tallied the successes of the weeklong revival: faith restored, marriages repaired, addictions broken and relationships reinvigorated.
"There was revival and I know that St. Petersburg will never be the same again," he said.
Harold Finch, 17, was one of several teenagers baptized Sunday. Finch said the message that resonated this week was that peace is possible when you make good choices.
"I've been on the right path, but this is just to wash away all my past and move forward," he said.
Pastor Bobby Musengwa from Maximo Presbyterian Church said he didn't hesitate when Murphy called on him to join the coalition.
"We couldn't afford to stand and watch our own children killing each other. It's a tragedy," Musengwa said.
Gabrielle Thomas, 17, a senior at Gibbs High School, said she's weary from the violence that has taken two friends from her this year. In March, her friend Levaud Landers, 18, was shot in the head and killed. A 17-year-old has been charged with his murder.
In June, her 17-year-old classmate Javon Dawson died after he was shot by a police officer outside a high school graduation party. Dawson leveled a gun at police before he was shot, authorities said.
Thomas said she hopes other teens have been inspired by seeing people from different churches come together "like a family."
"I think it's going to help a lot because since we did this as a big community thing with everyone involved, it lets them know people care," she said.
Murphy said he was "spiritually exhausted" after the week, but inspired by the cooperation and kindness exhibited by ministers and their congregations.
"The battle is not won but surely there is victory today because the Christians are coming out of the closet and saying 'we have the answer' and the answer is God," Murphy said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.