TIME Crime

Essence Honors Mothers Who Lost Children to Gun Violence

Amid recent shootings in Essence Festival host city New Orleans

This article originally appeared on Essence.com

For Patrina Peters, the final day of the Essence Festival in New Orleans wasn’t a joyous occasion. Peters, a native to the city, was one of dozens of mothers who attended a prayer vigil Sunday morning at the Ernest J. Morial Convention Center to pay tribute to the children they’d lost to gun violence.

For the second year in a row, Essence has partnered with the city of New Orleans to bring attention to the issue of gun violence in the Black community by honoring mothers who have lost their children. Mothers and festivalgoers gathered in prayer on the Festival’s Empowerment Experience stage, which served as a hub for thought leaders and celebrities conducting insightful talks over the four-day event.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse opened the prayer vigil with a moment of silence for the lives lost, taking a moment to acknowledge the city’s ongoing efforts to curb violence. Over the past year, the Landrieu administration has helped bring the number of murders in the Crescent City down from 193 in 2012 to 155 in 2013.

“We as a nation should say this has got to stop,” Landrieu said Sunday.

Landrieu has also launched the NOLA for Life initiative, which works within communities to address crime and to provide alternatives for youth who would otherwise fall victim to violence. Peters, whose 19-year-old son was shot and killed in May 2010, works with the organization to provide support for mothers and families suffering in the wake of a devastating loss. She addressed the crowd on Sunday, sharing her son Damon’s story while holding back tears. “He was smart. He played basketball and he was a Mardi Gras Indian since the age of 10,” Peters said. “It is so hard to describe the emptiness I feel.”

At one point during the ceremony, mothers pinned photos of the sons and daughters they’ve lost to violence on a “wall of remembrance.”

After the vigil, Peters (with a little help from a local brass band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”) led the mothers out of the hall and into the atrium of the Convention Center. There she met Tanaka Charles, a mother from Miami who lost her son four years ago, just five days shy of his 21st birthday. The two women embraced, and Charles burst into tears, saying, “We want our kids to be valued just like everyone else.”

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