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Residents in the St. Louis Suburb of Ferguson Share Their Stories

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Meghan O'Donnell, 29, prays at the spot where Michael Brown was killed

J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

08/27/2014 AT 11:15 AM EDT

In the weeks following the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, has been a hotbed for civil and racial unrest.

Residents like jazz singer Denise Thimes, 54, are sharing their thoughts with PEOPLE on how the shooting – and subsequent protests – are affecting their lives and the lives of their family and friends.

"I choose to live in Ferguson because, first of all, Ferguson is safe," says Thimes. "Ferguson is a diverse community. It is still a place where people can be and are neighborly."

As the U.S. Justice Department delves into the incident, and a local grand jury considers evidence in the case against Wilson, many residents are looking for answers – and help.

"Being a part of the recovery is like a sacred moment," says the Rev. Donna Smith-Pupillo, 59, a nurse who is assisting in a United Way drop-in center. "I really hope that this is going to be a new beginning, a new way of being."

While Ferguson awaits answers about what happened and why, many residents embrace hope that Brown's death will spark conversations and prompt change.

"We have got to reunite in some instances, but for the most part unite, in order to begin to face the issues," says Thimes. "We definitely want the healing. We don't want families to fear for their children walking down the street."

"It will take some time," she says, "but I just pray and hope that we stay committed to that."

With reporting by ELAINE ARADILLAS

For more on our special report, Voices from Ferguson, with stories and photos of residents, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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