Durham County

Her daughter was murdered. The mother became a leader in Durham’s fight against gun violence

Effie Steele, board chair of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, lights a candle at a vigil in 2016.
Effie Steele, board chair of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, lights a candle at a vigil in 2016.

Many Durham residents are mourning the death of Effie Steele, a longtime leader in the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham whose own daughter was killed by gun violence.

Steele died Friday at age 68 after a prolonged illness. Steele was described as a wise leader, beautiful, forgiving and prayerful.

The coalition announced Steele’s death on its website:

“Effie’s love and leadership embodied the very essence of the coalition, and her fierce, peaceful presence offered a glimpse of God’s beloved community to all she met. Her service to (the coalition) and our Durham community is immeasurable and enduring; we will never see her like again.”

Ruthy Jones, the group’s vigil and community coordinator, said Steele had an uncommon strength.

“With her at the helm we could sail the troubled waters well. She was such a wise leader,” Jones said.

Steele was involved in several nonviolent and anti-poverty initiatives, and ran the coalition’s monthly roundtable luncheons held at Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church in Northeast Central Durham.

“She could run a tight ship. Our meetings started on time and ended on time,” Jones said. “She was irreplacable. I just feel bereft.”

Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel called Steele an icon of nonviolence in the community.

“She stands for the ideal of a nonviolent community. What the Religious Coalition has done is very unique and it’s very grassroots and it’s very involved with the families who have suffered violence,” Schewel said. He called Steele’s ability to speak to, mourn with and comfort them a “tremendous gift.”

“The probability is high that today someone in Durham will be assaulted with a gun,” Schewel added. Steele’s legacy will be up to Durham, he said.

City Councilman Charlie Reece tweeted Monday that he cried when he learned of her passing.

“Effie was a treasure. Love and strength to her family,” Reece wrote.

Daughter murdered

Steele was a mother of three daughters. Her daughter Ebony was murdered in 2007 at age 21. Ebony was nine months pregnant with a baby boy, Elijah.

Steele lobbied the N.C. General Assembly to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

Steele spoke often of Ebony and Elijah at the coalition’s roundtables and vigils. Steele also led the annual Vigil Against Violence, lighting candles for those whose lives were ended by violence. The vigil is a joint effort of coalition and Parents of Murdered Children-Durham Chapter. At the vigil in February this year to remember 2016 victims of violence in Durham, Steele asked the families to stand and then for those seated around them to go over and hug them.

“The pain never ceases,” she said. “Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.”

Diane Jones, leader of Parents of Murdered Children-Durham Chapter, said Steele joined the chapter right after Ebony and Elijah were killed.

“From day one, she said ‘I refuse to be a victim and want to do something with this anger,’ and she did just what she said,” Diane Jones said.

Jones, whose son David Bullock was murdered in 1997, said she wished there were more people like Steele.

“I will call her a warrior of love, who had a courage and who was just amazing. She wanted to make a difference, and she did,” Jones said.

Steele was also involved with the N.C. Victim Assistance Network, and her late daughter’s and grandson’s names are on bricks in its Crime Victim Memorial Garden in Raleigh. In 2013, she was also part of a group of mothers of murder victims in Durham who went to Washington, D.C., as part of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

‘Faith limitless’

Marcia Owen, who retired in late 2016 as executive director of the coalition, was a close friend and colleague.

“Her faith was limitless. She lived, I think, in perpetual prayer,” Owen said.

Owen visited Steele in the hospital last week, and they talked about coalition business. Owen described her friend as beautiful, gentle, loving, patient, forgiving and “knowing everyone belongs.”

At a meeting in 2014, Steele prayed to God that the coalition could be an example for young people in Durham.

“We pray that the murderous spirit over Durham be lifted,” Steele prayed in 2014.

At another vigil in 2013, Steele said that when someone in Durham is murdered, “it’s no longer you or us. It’s us.”

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 26 at Mt. Zion Christian Church, 3519 Fayetteville St. in Durham.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan