The people of Dawn are used to coming together in prayer. They did it two years ago, right in the middle of Mount Gideon Road, after a man strung out on drugs tried to rape a woman there. They've even held a prayer vigil to ask for running water and toilets, which some residents of this little Caroline County community still lack.
It's time for another prayer vigil.
On Labor Day, 11 people were shot and one was stabbed in a fight that broke out about 2 a.m. Authorities said it was the worst outbreak of violence in memory in the rural county south of Fredericksburg. Although there were no life-threatening injuries, the incident literally left bullet holes in the heart of Dawn -- its community center, where people hold wedding receptions, family reunions and parties such as the one that was ending when the shooting started that Monday.
As authorities investigate what some residents say was a drug-related dispute, Dawn is doing its own examination -- of itself.
Dawn was known until recent years as a rustic, open-air drug market. Then local, state and federal authorities joined forces to clean it up. At a crowded community meeting last week, one resident after another described the event as a wake-up call that Dawn might be teetering on the edge again.
Some said that the county sheriff's office was to blame for not patrolling enough in Dawn, isolated at the sparsely populated southern end of Caroline and with 13 percent of about 600 residents living below the federal poverty line. Others blamed a lack of values for the incident, which occurred at a late-night party at which young people and alcohol were present. Still others noted that the one man arrested so far was from another part of Caroline. "When I heard about this, I knew the people involved weren't from Dawn," a woman said.
But everyone agreed that some prayer would help, and a vigil is scheduled for Thursday in front of the community center. Meanwhile, residents talked about the need for more volunteerism, more activities for youth and more celebrating of the positive: Dawn's 26-year-old community center, its legacy of blacks and whites living, working and praying side by side, its faith and its recipes -- yes, its recipes.
"We are very proud of our community, and we want to take it back!" roared Jayne Massie, 82, who sits on the board of the Dawn Progressive Association, which owns the center and raises money by renting the space and selling things. "And we also have a cookbook. It's $10, and the recipes are really excellent."
Although people are saying the Labor Day violence was a catalyst for some overdue reflection, it is not clear how much Dawn actually had to do with events.
The only person arrested by the sheriff's office, Curtis J. Holton, 22, of Ruther Glen, has a history of convictions for crimes involving drugs and violence. More arrests are coming, mostly a result of tips from the Dawn community, said Maj. Mike Hall of the sheriff's office.
But the details of what happened remain vague. No one answered the door at Holton's home, and his phone number had been disconnected. Sheriff Tony Lippa would not say whether Holton and other suspects were connected to the Dawn family that hosted the party, and he has not said publicly what motivated the fight. Rumors are rampant. Residents at the meeting Monday said that drugs were involved and that authorities also were investigating some Dawn residents.
Police said that although Dawn has had a long-term problem with drug selling, crime there in general is not different from crime in other parts of Caroline, which this year for the first time created two full-time positions for sheriff's deputies assigned to narcotics.
The investigation aside, Dawn residents said they are worried that trouble has returned.
Hall said the community has been under pressure recently from the south. Growth in Richmond and its suburbs has brought more law enforcement officers, he said, and drug dealers have been trying to escape them by creeping back into Dawn.
"Every single person here can say they know of bad things going on, and it isn't getting any better. We may as well be living in downtown Richmond," said Melinda King, 20, whose daughter goes to Little Sheep's Pasture day care, which rents space in the community center and has bullet holes through its wall from the recent fight.
At the community meeting, several of the nearly 40 residents who stayed until about 10 p.m. said the problem was that young people do not have enough to do. Then there was the back-and-forth so familiar at such meetings: Someone said more effort should go into getting grants and fundraising, and someone else asked how that is possible when the same few people do all the work?
Intermingled with the frustration and fear was the comfortable talk of people who have lived lifetimes together in a small community.
People joined in on other people's stories -- for instance, Chandra Atkins's recollection of going to school at the center in the 1960s, when it was still a school for "colored children" like herself. They laughed when Atkins, 47, who runs the day care, pointed to her first-grade teacher, who was sitting across the room. There were somber "mmm-hmms" when Dawn's rougher, crime-ridden past was mentioned. And no one seemed to blink when older ladies interrupted to sell raffle tickets or cookbooks.
And they made plans: to form a committee to organize youth events and to begin hiring off-duty police for night events.
And, of course, to pray.