"My heart goes out for the people, the young people especially," said Willie Rawls, president of the Chester Ushers Association and one of the organizers of the vigils. "There's not enough direction for them, and not enough things for them to do. Somebody has to try to make a difference for them."
So a group of 20 or 30 ushers - most of them women, many of them in their 50s or older - has continued to gather each week, braving heat and cold, rain and snow, only missing one or two weeks since the vigils began in October last year. On a dozen of the most notorious drug corners in Chester, they have come together for song and prayer, in hopes that their presence would inspire change.
They have had their adventures. One time, someone was shot and killed an hour before a vigil began and within a few feet of the corner where the vigil took place. Another time, a fight broke out on the corner as the ushers walked up to it, and, with police en route, one of the ushers stood with one foot on a bag of drugs that had been dropped during the altercation.
Last Thursday, about 50 ushers returned to Seventh and Lloyd Streets, the corner on which they had first gathered. Not much had changed in the intervening time; earlier in the week, a man was shot and killed only a block away from where the ushers stood.
For their part, the ushers still carried the same hand-lettered signs, with the same messages. "Say No to Drugs, Say Yes to Jesus," they read, and "We Love You" and "Help Build Chester." And they still sang the same gospel songs with the same fervor, their voices ringing out along empty streets.
There have been few visible signs of the vigils' success, the ushers concede - few on-the-spot conversions, and mostly the same faces appearing at the vigils. And a plan to set up a mentoring program for young people has not yet come to pass.
Still, though there is little concrete evidence of any changes, they have kept the faith; faith that prayer and commitment can make good things happen, and faith, as Wilhelmina Bell, vice president of the ushers' association, says, that "a lot of them (young people) are getting tired of the street, and we will be there for them when they get tired."
That faith has won the admiration of Chester Police Chief James B. Clark. ''I've seen them out there in all kinds of weather, on some of the really bad corners," he said in an interview last week.
"I commend them for what they're doing. They're saying that the streets belong to the good people of the city, not the drug dealers and the criminals. Hopefully, others will follow their example."
At a meeting some weeks ago, the ushers talked about whether to go on with the vigils, after their anniversary date had passed. After some discussion, they decided that they would continue to come out every week.
"I really think we are making a difference," Rawls said. "I think that there are people who are really listening. People call and ask us to come to this corner or that - they really want us out there. So we will keep going."