We gathered at 43rd and Market in Louisville, Ky., for the second time in the past several years to mark another senseless murder.
This time a 23-year-old man’s life was ended forever because of a disagreement, or a moment of bravado, or a theft. What difference does it make, really? The young man is dead.
A processional cross marked our location and invited people to gather for song and prayer, and to stand against the pervasive violence in our world.
This gathering of 50 people was larger than our usual weekly crowd, because it included members of the victim’s family. We sang “I Will Trust in the Lord” and read the litany that has marked our gatherings for almost three years.
Then I asked someone from the family if they would like to say a few words. “There’s his father,” they said, pointing to a well-dressed African-American man, whose face revealed grief that was exponential to the rest of ours.
A hush came on the crowd as all eyes fell upon the father. There was a long, long pause as the father worked to find words. Finally he managed to say, “I loved my son so much” before his throat constricted. We stood in painful silence.
Then from the far side of the gathering we watched a white man from the South End–wearing a T-shirt that bore a picture of his son, murdered in 2005–bound toward the dumb-struck father. “C’mere Dad,” he said, as he gathered the grieving father into his arms.
Through obstructed eyes we saw it–if only for a moment–the dream of God: human beings transcending race, region and class, united in our common vision for life at its fullest.
The vigil ended, the television interviews wrapped up and the crowd began to disperse. I took apart the portable processional cross and said goodbye to some of the friends I’ve made from these sad, weekly gatherings.
Headed to my car, I looked back to see the father, alone, standing in the middle of the 43rd and Market. I returned to his side without speaking. He didn’t look up, but gestured to the street. “Here is where his head was, and his body was laying in that direction,” he said, pointing.
Without thinking, I knelt and placed the processional cross on the street where the father had last seen his son. The father in turn knelt, instinctively, and began to caress the arms and trunk of the cross for several minutes, as if it were his very own son. For several minutes we knelt together in the street, cars slowing and passing by us on either side. Then the father picked up the cross and handed it back. “I love you,” he said, and turned and walked away.
Some stories don’t require a moral or an interpretation. They transcend faith traditions, and maybe even the liberal-fundamentalist divide. They tell in picture the universal story of the Mystery of Life.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
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Church Remembers Homicide Victims With Crosses
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.