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St Paul’s, through the eyes of the reverend patrolling for peace

For years, the Reverend Dawnecia Palmer – a United Nations Peacemaker – has worked on Bristol’s inner-city streets. After a recent spate of stabbings rocked St Paul’s, she’s praying for an end to the ‘pandemic of the blade’.

Reverend Palmer

Reverend Palmer, 66, has been doing prayer patrols in Bristol for over 20 years

Area in Focus

“My work is always outside. I take the love of God – I call it the love of life – and I take it to the streets,” the Reverend Dawnecia Palmer tells me, as we walk through the Bearpit. “We go where the need is,” she adds. 

The need has taken her all over the world. From Jamaica, to America, to sitting with Hamas in Palestine and visiting the Korean border. But now, her focus is closer to home – in St Paul’s. 

In July, 19-year old Eddie Kinuthia was stabbed to death on Grosvenor Road Triangle Park. Just months later, and metres away from the same spot, 61-year old Hubert ‘Isaac’ Brown was also stabbed and killed. Their deaths have left the community shaken.

“St Paul’s is close to my heart, it’s my community,” the Reverend tells me, having lived in the area for a few years and held a congregation in the Malcolm X Centre. “A big chunk of my work is here.” 

In the early 2000s, when St Paul’s was considered a “no go area” for police, the Reverend decided to act, taking to the streets to speak to the community. “Being a spiritual leader – you got to see what else is behind the issues. We help when we interact with people to find out the real issue.” 

Impressed by her work, the local police superintendent reached out her, offering both high-vis jackets and support around working on the streets. From there, the Prayer and City Safety Patrols were born – and have been going ever since. In recognition for her work, she was made a ‘Peacemaker’ by the United Nations in 2003, and then an ambassador for peace in 2006.

As we turn the corner onto Wilder Street, the Reverend rummages in her bag, and pulls out a high-vis jacket. “I’m like Superman – if I see something happening I go round the corner and put my jacket on!” she jokes. 

And with that, we set off on patrol – a well trodden path for the Reverend, with familiar terrain but ever-shifting challenges. 

The power of prayer 

Two men sit chatting on Grosvenor Road. “Would you like a prayer?” the Reverend asks them kindly. “Nah you’re alright,” one returns respectfully. “You quick fi sayin nah man!” the Reverend returns. They all laugh, and chat for a while. 

“That happens,” she tells me as we continue walking. “But still speaking to the people like this – it’s community building.” 

As long as I have breath to live, I will pray for peace.

Rev Dawnecia Palmer

She explains further: “Every connection, every action of going out, is the prayer. If I laugh with someone, or make them think or engage – to me, we’ve prayed. We don’t judge – I just want to hold a mirror up to people to make them see the good inside themselves, so they know someone cares about them.” 

As we walk down the street, various people wave and greet the Reverend warmly – evidence of her deep-rooted community connections. 

“And there’s the invisible patrol,” she adds. “We pray for the protection of an area, and we fortify ourselves with prayer so we can send out positive energy and bring peace to the area.”

She pairs her work in the spiritual realm with practical interventions also. “If we see too much garbage around, we can go to the council and say: ‘You wouldn’t let this happen in Clifton!’”

‘Pandemic of the blade’

Just before the park, we stop. Arriving at the Kinuthia family house, yellow and blue ribbons line the gate. A large picture of a smiling Eddie stands in the window, curtain drawn. 

“When I think about it – it’s just so sad”, the Reverend sighs. “I used to be there every day. There’s no closure for that family…” she sighs, referring to the fact no one as yet has been charged with Eddie’s murder. 

She prays: “Dear Lord and life, I want to speak a prayer in the atmosphere and ask that Eddie’s killer be found, and be truly sorry and have a change of heart, and we pray for the family – to be healed and for closure. And we thank you again for this life of Eddie… No more lives, no more knives. Amen.” We bow our heads in silence. 

“Now you see, we have what I call the pandemic of the blade,” Palmer tells me. In October, she organised a protest against knife crime by the Cenotaph in the city centre, bringing together bereaved families and the public to take a stand. She’s continuing the campaign, and working with the mothers of sons who’ve lost their lives to knife crime. 

Walking on, we soon reach the bouquets of flowers tied to the railings of Grosvenor Park in memory of Isaac, and we stop again for prayer. It’s being treated as a race-hate crime

“It makes it hard to speak to some people you know – they say: ‘If there was a loving God that you talk about, why would this have happened?’” 

On the Frontline

We’re caught in the pleasant thoroughfare of people on the so-called ‘frontline’, and we cross to the Rastafarian Cultural Centre (RCC)  to meet ‘King George’ – a known photographer in the area. In recent months, the RCC successfully crowdfunded the money needed to keep the centre open. 

Reverend Palmer
Reverend Palmer speaks to people on Grosvenor Road, near where recent stabbings took place
Photo: Priyanka Raval

The Reverend recruits a new member for her prayer patrols, the RCC are running a citizens first aid course, and they arrange for bleed kits to be shared with the patrol team. 

After being on our feet for hours, we decide to head back to St Paul’s Learning Centre, to sit in Glen’s Kitchen, the café that serves up Caribbean food. As we approach, three young boys, around 10 or 11, uniform clad, fresh from school are playing on the railings with their bikes. 

“Hello young men! Would you like a prayer today?” the Reverend asks. “How long will it take?” one asks. “I already went to church on Sunday!” the other chimes in. “It will take one second,” Palmer reassures them. 

“OK, yeah, go on then.” The three boys politely bow their heads and bring their hands together for prayer, saying Amen in chorus to finish. “I’m Muslim actually – but that was nice,” one says. 

“Can I pray for you though?” one boy says, as we turn away. “Dear God, I hope you can protect this wonderful lady and bless her with a good life. Amen.” It’s a touching moment – the Reverend is moved to tears, and thanks them profusely. 

She recounts the story to Glen as we go in. “That’s the first time in 22 years a young person has prayed for me!” she says, wiping her eyes as we order. “It’s the best gift anyone could have given me.”

“What do you think about Prayer Patrols, Glen? This lady’s doing an interview,” Palmer adds. “It brings a good feeling in the area – ya doing alright!” Glen replies. 

Going beyond religion 

We reflect on the day’s walk. Through the Reverend’s eyes I saw the ghosts of St Paul’s materialise before me: drug dealers on street corners, sex workers on Portland Square, the liveliness of the Black and White Café and the Bamboo Club. 

When we walked past Malcolm X, she remembered the beloved Evon ‘Bangy’ Berry, caretaker of the Malcolm X Centre, who was shot in 1996. Where I saw the former site of the Blue Mountain club, she saw the stabbing of Jama Powell in 2018. She sat with these families, and grieved with the community. 

But the Reverend sees change – the positive impact of her prayer. In an area where Christianity, Islam and Rastafarianism co-exist, Palmer manages to hold universal appeal. “We got lots of different members to appeal to different people – and anyways, when you offer peace in people’s soul, you go beyond religion,” she says. 

“As long as I have breath to live, I will pray for peace.”

Looking up Brighton Street in the heart of St Paul’s
Looking up Brighton Street in the heart of St Paul’s.

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