Praying the Violence Out of Detroit

By: Amanda Johnson, Founder, Detroit Women Wailing Against Violence

Detroit Women Wailing Against Violence, or D-WAV, is a local initiative inspired by the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell and its story of Peace is Loud speaker Leymah Gbowee.

In 2003, a group of 3,000 ordinary women in Liberia, led by social worker Leymah Gbowee, came together to form the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace prayer movement. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, the group demanded a resolution to the violence and instability in their country, and was able to bring an end to the 14 year-long civil war. Their story is chronicled in the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

When I watched Pray the Devil Back to Hell a few years ago, I was deeply impressed with the power and faith of the Liberian women. The film spoke to me on many levels. Liberia holds a special place in my heart and represents a homeland for me since I only know that, as an African American, my ancestry is somewhere on the west coast of Africa. I also couldn’t help but feel inspired watching women courageously stand up in the face of violence.

When a young man from my church was brutally attacked and killed on Christmas Eve last year, I was devastated and was searching for a way to address this tragedy and the escalating violence in Detroit. Pray provided me with a clear path forward: I would bring local women together in a faith-based anti-violence initiative. A Liberian friend and co-worker was part of the movement in Liberia, and so, inspired by their success, I asked my friend to join a group of 5 women and Detroit Women Wailing Against Violence (D-WAV) is the result of our collaboration. 

We have been able to rally support from local media, encouraging women to pray and embrace our position statement denouncing the objectification of women and the devaluing of life in general. In particular, we are encouraging women to embrace the Afrocentric mindset that the children of the community belong to all of us, and that we each have a unique responsibility for their care and well-being. Currently, the women of D-WAV are working to secure a location for a city-wide prayer breakfast where we will feature a viewing of Pray the Devil Back to Hell. We have also partnered with the Detroit affiliate of the National Black Child Development Institute to discuss public policy strategies.

We are tired of violence robbing our community of those with so much promise, terrorizing families and disrupting the peace. We are taking this radical stand to secure the future of Detroit’s children. To borrow from the position statement of our Liberian sisters, “We (women) are the custodians of society.”

The systemic breakdown in Detroit has given place to a broken community that embraces a culture of objectifying women, assessing their worth in terms of certain parts of the female anatomy and discounting the worth of children. Objects are disposable.  When we view people as objects they become disposable.  Children are our future and, undeniably, the most valuable assets a society has. Yet, our lack of commitment to their success, as reflected by a reluctance to invest in their future, in effect says, "you are inconvenient. You are in the way.  You are expensive.  We cannot afford you." Their response has been to agree with us. They don’t value their own inherent potential and they don’t value the possibilities life holds for those around them. Why did we think that we could accept the devaluing of any individuals in society and not have it spill over into a general devaluation of all life? 

The horrific cost of devaluing people, the one that we are being forced to face, confronts our present future: We have responded to the loss of African Americans to urban violence as a purely theoretical one that has been sad but unavoidable, as if those who succumbed were civilian casualties of war. The deaths have become so commonplace that many of us have come to accept them as a way of life. 

However, those who have been lost are not the enemy. They are the children of our friends. Neighbors. Brothers and sisters. They are us, and their demise is not a loss of inert, amorphous flesh and blood, but of living, breathing, unique individuals who began as all of us did—on their way to becoming the next Quincy Jones, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lena Horne, Benjamin Banneker, Julius Irving, Madame C.J. Walker, Tyler Perry, Solomon Kinloch—but were prevented from assuming their unique place in history.

The women of Detroit Women Wailing Against Violence are extending a clarion call to Detroit communities to become a part of a cultural shift that will bring about multigenerational change that makes our city a safe, nurturing and vibrant place for everyone, and, in particular, for our children.

To learn more about D-WAV, please visit their Facebook page.