By Elyssa Cherney
Zimri Rivera dropped out of school in 10th grade before things got worse. He was already picking fights and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
"Rather than being a victim of it, I was a part of it," said Rivera, 19, of Reading. "So my parents made the decision to pull me out of school. I got my GED, and it was for the best because now I see that there is something more than just that."
Rivera now is an ordained pastor at Pentecostal Church Place of Refuge in Reading.
He was one of more than 300 people representing about 25 Latino churches who marched through downtown Reading on Sunday to protest gang violence in the community.
"We really want to reach the youth and give the youth a better outlet than what they currently have right now," Rivera said. "Something better than gangs, something better than drugs, something that doesn't lead to crime or violence."
The Latino Pastors Organization organized the prayer march to promote peace in the city.
Marchers with signs that read "Stop the violence" and "Leave your guns, bring your Bible" led the crowd from City Park down Washington Street and to City Hall for a few moments of energetic prayer, then back to City Park for a service and music.
U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, a Chester County Republican whose district includes the entire city, marched with the group.
Since police departments are stretched, community action can help curb gang violence, he said.
"Building community awareness and having people in each block, for instance, take leadership and ownership of their block to help organize patrols - turn lights on and sit on their porches - is very important," Pitts said.
He also encouraged all Latinos to vote in city elections and be active members in the democratic process.
Ana Guillen, 16, might be too young to vote, but she has firsthand experience of the problems in Reading.
"There is violence in schools; it's everywhere," Ana said. "There is fighting at the Citadel, kids being delinquents. I used to live that life three years ago. I went to parties, I drank alcohol. But after a while I needed a change, so I started going to church."
Pastor Felipe Fana, president of the Latino Pastors Organization, said he prayed that there will be more opportunities and jobs offered to young people in Reading.
Micdalia Montalvo, a mother of three, also wants change.
"I want this march to show that we can conquer this (violence) and bring morality back to the people," Montalvo, 49, of Muhlenberg Township said as she marched with her family, all linking hands.
"There is violence all over, and I wish it would get better because it's getting worse and worse," she said