Chestnut Hill church lawn dressed in heartbreak

Posted: January 23, 2013

MOVITA Johnson-Harrell tried to get away.

"The summer of 2007 . . . I turned to my husband and said: 'My sons will not become statistics on the streets of Philadelphia. It's time to go,' " Johnson-Harrell said Monday. She moved her family to Lansdowne to keep her children from the city's violent gun culture.

Despite the move, in 2011, Johnson-Harrell buried her 18-year-old son, Charles Johnson. He was shot in East Germantown in his car, a victim of mistaken identity, waiting for his sister.

"Three years to the day we left Philly, I was burying my son. . . . You can't move away from the problem."

Johnson-Harrell was moved to create the anti-violence Charles Foundation, which collaborated on a memorial project in Chestnut Hill to place 331 T-shirts on the lawn of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill this weekend to symbolize the city's 331 homicides in 2012. Guns were used in many of those cases.

The project was supported in large part by Heeding God's Call, a faith-based organization dedicated to ending gun violence.

"The numbers on a newspaper page are almost numbing," said Bryan Miller, a member of the organization's executive committee. "You lose perspective of how enormous the death toll is."

The memorial, which takes up the church's front lawn, comprises 331 plastic crosses, each draped with a shirt bearing the name, age and death date of each victim. Nearly 60 community members, many of them youths, gathered on Saturday to place the crosses on the church lawn for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service.

The church's Rev. Cindy Jarvis said that the experience struck a chord with the many young people who gathered to honor the victims. "[The youths] were writing names and ages of kids who were the same age, or close to their age," she said. "I think it's an issue that really matters to them, too."

Along with this awareness, Heeding God's Call and its collaborators hope to inspire legislative change to combat the city's gun culture. Although national debate over gun legislation has increased since the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, Miller said that the memorial has been in the works for some time, and he hopes the memorial will resonate with City Council.

"We're hoping that basically, it [prompts] people out of lethargy about violence, and we include in that the mayor," Miller said, adding that the city has not responded to the memorial. "We have made a proposal to the mayor about regulating the gun shops . . . and we've not gotten what I would call a meaningful response from him."

This legislative push is backed by the memorial's focus on illegal guns, with signs informing passers-by that many of the 331 victims were killed by illegal firearms.

The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, of Chestnut Hill's Church of St. Martin in the Fields, brought the idea to Heeding God's Word and community churches. He says the striking visual of the shirts adds a human element to this legislative battle.

"When these deaths are spread out one or two or three a day, it's normal for people to lose track of the human cost of overly permissive gun laws," Kerbel said. "I think it helps people come face to face with the loss of human life in 2012."


On Twitter: @AliMarieWatkins

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