Members of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., gathered at noon Sunday for a somber Advent tradition remembering people who died violently during the last year.
For the last nine years the church has closed the second Sunday of Advent, which features lighting of the Peace Candle, by moving outdoors. As names of murder victims are read, families come forward, take a cross and pound it into the frozen ground with a mallet.
Hours before this year’s ceremony at Highland Baptist, 25-year-old Deandre Anthony was found shot multiple times in his home. He was the 63rd homicide victim in Jefferson County this year.
“We’re disheartened when another murder occurs, but we’re not discouraged,” Highland Pastor Joseph Phelps said in the Louisville Courier-Journal. “We know that people are very much prone to violence. It pervades our culture.”
Phelps told EthicsDaily.com the observance first began in 1997 following a spike in murders in the metropolitan area. At first there was no thought of making it an annual event, but community response was so strong that it was repeated in 1998. Now, he said, “It is a sad, but important Advent tradition in Louisville.”
Phelps belongs to No Murders Metro, an interdenominational coalition that meets at sites of homicides to pray for peace and healing. The group supports a tutoring program in high-crime areas called RSVP (Reducing Serious Violence Partnership) to identify people on parole at risk of committing repeat crimes and help them start a new life. In 1998 the movement distributed 4,000 gun locks to cut down on accidental shootings.
Each year the memorial service for murder victims receives local media attention on all for TV stations and newspapers.
“We’re not trying to ‘Christianize’ the victims, but rather to say that violence is overcome by the divine, self-giving love that Jesus exhibited on the Cross,” Phelps said.
About 250 people stood around the crosses, which will remain on the lawn until next month, according to the Courier-Journal.
Afterward, several talked of hope that the number of crosses will be reduced.
“Hope isn’t just a wish,” said Beth Hedges, who attended with her husband, Scott, and sons, Gareth, 13, and Nathan, 10. “It’s confirmation that we’re not just doing this for a show.”
“Hearts will change,” Scott Hedges said.
Other parents and grandparents accompanied children, some barely taller than the white crosses on the lawn. As the crowd headed to cars or walked back into the church, Bill Campbell, a deacon, stood with his 10-year-old son, Sean.
“It is easy to put a cross in a yard,” Campbell said, adding that it’s much harder “to deal with people in our frustration in a peaceful way.”
Campbell said that he tells his son that each cross represents a life taken through violence.
“The cross is a terrible reminder of a loss to someone’s family … and this is a hope of doing things in a way the world doesn’t normally see–and that’s through peace and love.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.