BY MARK GOODSON — After a white gunman shot and killed nine African American church-goers during a Bible study on June 17, mourners gathered at the University Park Church of the Brethren for a candlelight vigil to stand with the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C.
The vigil took place on June 19 at the Memorial to the Lost, an aptly named display of t-shirts commemorating victims of gun violence in the front yard of the University Park church from June 7 to 21.
The rows resembled tombstones and were meant to catch the eye: each of the 155 shirts was labeled with the name, age, and date of each citizen shot to death in 2014 in the greater Washington area.
Organizer Lisa Delity, who works for the faith based movement Heeding God’s Call, hopes the display caused people to “stop, read, pray, and remember.”
“When you only read the stories in the local paper and you see maybe one or two a week, the numbers of deaths do not really affect you. When you see 155 t-shirts representing the lives lost in our area in 2014 all together in a churchyard, it causes folks to stop and think,” she said.
She and her brother Bryan Miller work in honor of their brother, an FBI agent shot and killed over twenty years ago. “Our brother has been remembered and honored. But, many on the shirts are not. We do this for them,” she said.
The shirts were intentionally placed only feet from a busy thruway so that motorists and pedestrians might take notice, a certainty for drivers heading north on Route 1. Victims remembered include Cortes Catina, shot dead in a College Park hotel room, Everett Brown of Cottage City, Ali Amir of Bowie, and Knijah Bibb, a 3-year-old killed from stray gunfire.
“It was heartbreaking to read the names of the youngest victims, 3 and 4 years old. Too often we imagine that these things don’t happen near us; the memorial reminds us that these deaths are right here in our front yard,” said Cindy Lapp, Lead Pastor of the Hyattsville Mennonite Church.
Lapp was one of the original members of Heeding God’s Call Greater Washington. When she heard about the memorial, she knew she wanted to display it in Hyattsville. She contacted Pastor Kim McDowell of the University Park Church of the Brethren to unite their congregation’s efforts to remember the dead and promote gun violence awareness.
“Sitting in silent prayer or even gathered worship with others is not our only option when it comes to spirituality,” Lapp said. “We can put our faith into action by working together across religion, race and culture. We must join together to dismantle systemic racism in this country.”
America continues to lead the world in per capita gun deaths, and the South Carolina shooting is one of several racially instigated national emergencies in recent memory. It was a fact remembered at the June 19 vigil, where all were welcome.
The evening included prayer and song. Supporters lit their candles from nine main candles, representing each life lost on June 17; others lit their candles from their neighbors’. As a light rain fell, those gathered remained and sung under umbrellas.
The June 19 vigil occurred two days before the Memorial to the Lost was moved to its next destination in Washington D.C.