Celebrating Peace in a Community Touched By Gun Violence

Text and Photos by Laura Bult

NEW YORK — At a children’s summer party last Saturday afternoon at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway, Penny Wrencher made an introduction between two friends.

She knew they would have something in common.

“This is Nene,” Wrencher said to Taylonn Murphy, “She lost her daughter, too.”

Murphy and Vernell “Nene” Britt smiled, shook hands and looked at each other in recognition. They had both lost charismatic, basketball-playing daughters in shooting feuds.

In the summer of 2006, Britt was awakened by a phone call with news that her 18-year-old daughter, Latina “Peanut” Bilbro, had been involved in a shooting. She descended the Redfern tower where she lived and discovered Peanut lying on the pavement with a fatal gunshot wound to her chest.

Five years later, across the city, Murphy’s daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, also 18, was shot and killed in a hallway of Harlem’s Grant Houses.

The children’s party where Murphy and Britt met was organized by Wrencher and the Far Rockaway Police Athletic League youth summer camp as both a celebration for the community’s youth and a forum for anti-violence education. That the two met at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event wasn’t out of the ordinary. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had, in some way, been touched by gun violence.

Taylonn Murphy, Penny Wrencher, Shenee Johnson and Vernell Britt all lost children to gun violence. They came together at the “Children’s Day of Peace” event at Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway.

“We were all affected by violence in different forms,” said a former Redfern resident and activist known as Queen Esther. “I’ve had family members killed. Boyfriends killed. I used to be part of that dysfunction and I suffered so much.”

Redfern Houses have been quiet lately. There hasn’t been a single shooting in the past year according to crime data from the New York Police Department. But residents remember a time, only years ago when weekend shooting sprees would claim several teenage victims in the area.

In 2008, an aspiring dancer, Brandon Bethea, 15, was shot and killed in a shootout between rival crews from opposing sides of the Redfern Houses. Bethea’s family had moved her out of Redfern to get her away from the violence that marred the hallways and courtyards of the complex. She was there celebrating a graduation party when she was gunned down in a hail of 30 bullets.

Days later another teen, Tyrese Johnson, was gunned down in the doorway of the Last Stop Deli, just blocks away from the houses. The 16-year-old was killed in a case of mistaken identity, police said.

They say that they are still healing from those wounds.

“We’re just trying to come together as a community,” said Wrencher, who lost her son, Andre Saunders, a 32-year-old MTA bus employee, in a 2009 shooting. “I don’t want to see another mother cry out.”

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