Melech Thomas of Bowie, Md. can still recall the pain he felt as he watched firemen wash the blood of nine-year-old Chastity Turner off the sidewalk in front of her home in South Chicago.
It was the summer of 2009, and Thomas, now a senior speech and applied communications major at Howard University, was interning at Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago, where Father Michael Pfleger is crusading against gun violence.
This day, Thomas got to see it all up close. Chastity had been gunned down in the 7400 block of South Stewart Avenue as she and her father were washing the family’s dog. Her father and two of his friends were wounded by the gunmen firing from a passing van. Their injuries were said to be not life threatening.
Two teenagers were arrested in the case. One of the suspects is a 17 year-old who is charged with one count of murder and three counts of aggravated battery with a handgun. The second suspect is 19 and is charged with the unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Thomas had come to the street with a group from Saint Sabina’s church to pray and to urge Southside residents to help stop the violence that took Chastity’s life.
“When I saw that, the blood started to cry to me,” Thomas, now 23, said. “It said ‘Melech, you are here. What are you going to do about it?’”
That fateful summer is the reason Thomas is back in Chicago during his spring break instead kicking back in Bowie or heading to the beach as so many other college students do at this time of the year. He has returned to Chicago as one of two site coordinators for Howard’s Alternative Spring Break so he can continue to fight shootings that claim so many of the city’s youth.
Thomas and Remoshay Nelson are leading more than 50 Howard students who are here this week to talk with teens and other young people about gun violence, to lobby and canvas for gun control legislation and create a mural that will remind people of their efforts.
Thomas is spending his second consecutive spring break volunteering with the program, which provides the opportunity for more than 300 Howard University students to spend their spring break vacation serving communities in need. Thomas said he believes Alternative Spring Break (ASB) provides a way to help some people find their calling.
“ASB has a powerful way of teaching people through service,” he said.
After Chastity’s death, Thomas returned to Howard and spearheaded the student-run “Do You Care?” campaign that focused on the issue of gun violence. He and other anti-gun violence advocates led a 500-student march from Howard’s campus through nearby LeDroit Park to raise awareness. Thomas’ strong passion for the issue is what keeps him coming back to ASB Chicago.
He said he hopes the students’ experience with ASB Chicago will lead them to oppose “gun violence as their struggle and not just a school trip.”
With graduation quickly approaching, Thomas said he is torn between a career as a pastor, a college professor or an activist. After graduating, he plans to attend the Chicago Theological Seminary to pursue a master of divinity degree.
Whatever his ultimate choice, he said there is one constant: the death of a little nine-year-old girl in Chicago in the summer of 2009 pushes him to continue his service.