A thick canopy of blue-black clouds blocks all view of the heavens above. Absent the moon or stars, a clump of uninviting, barracks-style brick buildings squat in cold shadows cast by dim headlights from cars hissing by on the nearby Midlothian Turnpike.
It's 7 p.m., and in the brittle cold settling over the Midlothian Village Apartments, somber faces emerge, slowly assembling on the cracked pavement of the parking lot. Faces are streaked with fresh tears, some with the dried tracks of recent tears shed.
The arrival of television news crews signals the beginning of what has perhaps become as familiar, though less frequent, a religious service as any Sunday morning televangelist's broadcast.
The scene has played out for decades in Richmond, once burdened by its reputation as a homicide capital: grieving family hugging close together, clutching pictures of the ones they've lost to violence. Speeches are delivered, sometimes a poem or a song is performed, always dissolving in tears for the last few passages.
Tonight's prayer vigil celebrates the life and mourns the death of Brittney Ivisha Randolph, 20, a mother and nursing student fatally stabbed in an alleged domestic incident involving her boyfriend, Moses Parnall Jones, 22.
To many who watch the local television news, vigils are easy to dismiss. But in the tightly knit communities of Richmond's low-income urban neighborhoods, wracked for years by violence, blight and failing social programs, these vigils come after the violence but before the funeral. They serve as another important outlet to remember those who are lost while crying out for peace.
Vigils once were as much about safety in numbers as they were about grieving, says Charles Willis, executive director of Citizens Against Crime, an organization founded eight years ago by Alicia Rasin. For 20 years, Rasin has served as the city's chief cantor at events like this one. Tonight, Rasin is absent and Willis is here as a friend of the family rather than in his official role.
“When Richmond was the capital of murder — that was because retaliation was going on,” Willis says, and these vigils were born out of the need for a safe place for the community to grieve. Television cameras followed, and soon became an almost unwitting part of the ceremony.
This family's sorrow echoes across countless Richmond televisions. “It gives an opportunity to reach out to the broader part of the community,” Willis says.
Community vigils know no denomination, unless being born into poverty counts for anything. Randolph's family members are committed Baptists, says Sheron Randolph, Brittney's aunt, who organized the vigil.
“We can't question God why this happened,” Randolph says. Seeing so many people come to show their respect, to grieve, and to remember, she says: “It means Brittney was loved by many. This person was that important to us.”
“It's also about the community,” she says. “It says that things can change.”
Though vigils often take place outside, in the dark and in spite of rain, snow or cold, it isn't much different from any funeral, wake or memorial service.
Near the back of the assembly, a girl's sobs are muffled in the shoulder of a friend's heavy down coat.
Then come the remembrances of families and friends, each taking their turn in front of the hot lights of the television cameras.
An aunt remembers Brittney's longing to escape the poverty- and crime-ridden neighborhoods where she came up. She clutches a photo of a pretty young woman in fashionable, studious eyeglasses, with bangs sweeping loosely across her forehead. “She used to tell me, we're gonna live in a big house. … and do this and do that,” she says. She trails off as tears come.
An uncle, Cornell Hardy, a long-haul truck driver, finished a 4,800-mile route to be here. He talks, thanking the crowd of 100 or so people. “She came to me in my dream,” he says. “She said, ‘Uncle Fish, don't worry. I'm all right.' She let me know.” His grief overwhelms him and he walks outside of the gathering, his trembling hands lighting a cigarette he doesn't finish.
There's another reason why these vigils are important, Willis says. In a community where fear might keep witnesses from stepping forward publicly, or where snitching is considered the ultimate slight, vigils provide a natural cover. They're an accepted custom in which Richmond police officials are expected and welcomed.
“It's been quite helpful in obtaining information for the police department,” says J.J. Minor, who helped organize the vigil.
While police mingle or leave their business cards near the makeshift shrine to the victim that often ends the service, important clues and witnesses may step forward while never stepping out of the shadows cast by a vigil's prayer candles. Willis says he can't count the number of times a note has been slipped to Rasin by someone among the mourners who wants justice, but who otherwise might be afraid to seek it.
Often it's the end of these services that are most moving, when the reverence and bare emotion overwhelm the cameras. Candles are lighted.
“Let me tell you what the light symbolizes,” Willis says to the crowd. “It symbolizes a life that's been born. The word of God says, ‘So let your light shine,' and when the light shined into darkness, whatever was in darkness is revealed.”
And then there's the smoke, the thin tendrils that snake from the smoldering wicks: “The smoke symbolizes her ascent into heaven,” Willis says.
“We love you Brittney,” the crowd shouts in unison as a thin sliver of night sky shines through the heavy clouds.