Vigil remembers Camden's homicide victims

Helene Pierson, Juan Rodriguez, and Michael Culbreath head for the cathedral, where prayer honors each victim.
Helene Pierson, Juan Rodriguez, and Michael Culbreath head for the cathedral, where prayer honors each victim. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 30, 2012

Members of Tyhan "Boo-Bop" Brown's family stood at the front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Friday night in Camden, dabbing at tears as they held one another.

After a short prayer, Brown's aunt and cousin held each other while his sister went up to the candle and spoke directly to Brown. The city's 13th homicide victim this year, Brown was being remembered at a vigil the family described as "really beautiful" and "incredible."

The annual vigil began in 1995, when Sister Helen Cole wanted to mark a record 58 homicides that year.

The first candle lit Friday morning marked the start of what will be the longest vigil to date. The year 2012 has been Camden's bloodiest, with 67 confirmed homicides.

The vigil "just brings you back to the reality: Things are really bad in the city," said Lourdes Sherby, 29, a social worker at Guadalupe Family Services, which organizes the vigil. "They stop being numbers."

To bring the statistics to life, the organization lights a candle and dedicates an hour of prayer and remembrance to each person slain in the city.

This year's vigil will last 60 hours, the number of victims at the time Cole began planning it. The seven lives taken since then will be remembered in the vigil's last hour.

The first candle, for Jorame Wise, began burning at 7 a.m. If all remains as it is in the city, the last will be lit at 6 p.m. Monday for Rasheeda Peques, who was killed Dec. 16. The vigil, which is open to the public, runs from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to honoring the lives of the dead, the vigil aims to bring peace to their families and raise awareness of the city's situation, Sherby said.

"We ask that you give us hope and peace in the future," part of the hourly prayer reads. "Help us to make choices that will help Camden to be a safer place to live."

Sherby grew up in the city, getting a master's degree from Rutgers-Camden before joining Guadalupe. Growing up, she said, people are shielded from the violence or desensitized by its frequency.

"I think when you're in it, it becomes an everyday thing . . . just a harsh reality," Sherby said. "If you put 67 in any other city, it'd be a shock. But you put it in Camden and it becomes the norm."

A 24-foot-long scroll stands at the altar, with every victim's name and date of death written by Cole. In the foreground, the candle of the hour burns next to a name card and any photos or mementos brought by family. A white cross is planted in a flower pot in front of the table.

The crosses, which were placed in front of City Hall throughout the year, are available for family members who want them.

For Brown's 34-year-old sister, Mommon, Friday's vigil was particularly touching because it fell on her birthday.

Brown "found a way to make it to my birthday," she said. "If I didn't get anything for my birthday presents, but it ended with this, it would be perfect."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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