Just blocks away from Philadelphia's expensive cafes and swanky nightspots are community neighborhoods where street-side memorials can be found. They are piles of things left outside to memorialize a person who has passed. The bulk of these memorials are built from stuffed animals; childhood toys that speak to the age of those who have died. I have seen tables of candles, wreaths of flowers and murals on walls. They are shrines built by those who remember, in an effort to prevent others from forgetting.
These memorials are usually just an extension of the evening news. They are points on the map that give just a bit of added context to the stories of murder and violence. They are a dark contrast to the bright lights of Friday date nights. They bring a touch of reality to why our friends might not want to venture in. Some fears are legitimate.
One morning while reading the paper, I recognized a name. The headline read, “Teen dies after fistfight at North Philly playground.”
Usually when I read such stories, I just skim through looking for a street address; hoping to know a little better what exactly happens where. As I skimmed this time, my eye caught the name.
I had known this young man. He started coming to my church with his mom and little brother, a tight little family. They made the church their home. They were unremarkable in many ways; they fit in with all the rest of us. Good people.
His mom later lost interest and stopped attending. She allowed her oldest son to continue coming, but a 14-year-old can only do so much. When we stopped seeing him on Sundays, a friend and I would stop by from time to time and check in. My friend would occasionally leave church meetings to just go chat with the young man.
He was one of those good kids, worth investing some time and interest in. He seemed to be one that if given some support and instruction would make everyone around him proud some day.
He had been at the park with his best friend. The two of them had an argument and the friend punched him — just once. He fell, hitting his head on a bench in the process. An ambulance was called, a pronouncement was made and this best friend faced murder charges. The kid didn’t run away, he stayed at the scene and waited for the cops. I never heard a verdict.
A little time later, I went to visit the young man's grieving mother. She was having a rough time. To people who don’t have much, relationships and people mean more. She was offered many shoulders and hugs but became steely and hard. It would be hard to do otherwise. While leaving her home and walking to the corner, I saw his name painted on a wall.
Those memorials mean a little more to me now. No longer do they represent crime and fear. They represent people. People with stories who are worth knowing.
People worth remembering.