Standing on Madison Avenue the evening of June 29, a sea of people wearing red T-shirts could be seen for blocks as Austin residents gathered and prayed for their community’s safety.

Concern over violence in Austin prompted dozens of residents to meet at intersections throughout the West Side for several weeks on a Wednesday and Thursday of last month.

Ministers, church members, neighborhood groups and others gathered one last time last Wednesday for “100 Blocks & 100 Churches.”

They formed a unity chain that stretched on Madison Avenue from Austin Boulevard to Pulaski Road. Prior to June 29, they hosted prayer vigils on Wednesdays at the 15th District Police Station and simultaneously at Loretto Hospital. Similar vigils took place in the 11th Police District on the West Side. Their campaign is designed to “take back the streets.”

The initiative was organized last year by officers from 15th District CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy). The hope was to influence a reduction of crime in Austin, especially during the summer when violence peaks. This year, the 11th District also joined the effort, adding more churches and block clubs to the cause.

As the “red sea” engulfed Madison Avenue last week, prayers and hymns could be heard as the groups held hands and swayed back and forth as the oncoming traffic honked their horns in support.

“This is to let them [gang-bangers] know that there is a presence and a light here,” said Rev. Shavonda Fields.

As a former violence prevention coordinator for the Austin area, Fields stressed that violence has increased significantly “enough for us to stop doing what were doing” and start praying.

The groups and churches decided to hold the unity chain on the busiest street in Austin and at the busiest time, 6 p.m., to reach as many people as possible. Some pastors and organizations plan on returning to the streets every Wednesday and Thursday to pray as long as it helps stop the violence.

“Living World will be here everyday, year round,” said Minister Gregory Brown. “Next year, we will bring buses. The community itself needs to know that they can take back what they lost. But they have to be involved.”

Brown added that while crime reports haven’t shown a decline in violence, he insists the prayers are working. “What we are doing here is connecting,” he said. “We are his (God’s) ambassadors.”

Next June, the 11th and 15th Districts plan to continue the 100 Blocks & 100 Churches for a third year. The churches and community organizations hope to involve more people, and they’ll be wearing their red T-shirts again.

Mildred Wiley of Bethel New Life was part of the unity chain, which marked the end of a month of prayer taking place on corners throughout the West Side. Wiley explained that the red signifies “the unnecessary blood that we lost in our community, and we want the bloodshed to stop,” said Bethel’s senior director for community services.

“One thing,” she said, “we have to let people know is it’s not OK to keep killing.”