Dozens of wooden crosses, painted white with a number and name hand-written across the front, stood in the front lawn of St. Columba Catholic Church on Friday. Behind, a big cement cross was hung with a pine wreath and a sign that read: “These crosses represent those killed by homicide in Oakland this year.” There were 94 crosses in total.
From inside the church a woman with a low husky voice could be heard singing, “Let us be a generation of reconciliation and peace.” Slowly, around 100 people filed out of the church, wearing warm winter coats, and formed a circle around the crosses. They were community members, families of the deceased, police, religious leaders and politicians—some stood with their heads bowed, while others stoically held their chins up.
On the last day of 2010, St. Columba continued its annual tradition of having a memorial and ceremony to recognize and remember all people murdered in Oakland over the previous year. Each time someone is murdered, this church in the Golden Gate neighborhood plants a white wooden cross in its front lawn naming the individual killed. On December 31st they remove the crosses reading the names of those murdered and have a community prayer service. “We hope and pray what we do here is to mark the giftedness of each person,” said St. Columba pastor Father Aidan McAleenan during the ceremony. “Together we hope this moment won’t be in vain and that we celebrate these lives together.”
As people gathered around the crosses on the chilly grey day, different religious leaders spoke about the importance of remembering each person killed. “Each name represents a son or a daughter, a father or a uncle,” said Reverend George Cummings, the senior pastor of Imani Community Church in the Diamond District neighborhood. “We must memorialize them because we must remember. Memorializing them galvanizes us.”
There were 10 fewer Oakland murders in 2010 than in 2009, when 104 people were killed. However, this is still far too many, said each speaker during the ceremony. When the time came to remove the crosses, one of the church’s parishioners read each name aloud: “Alvaro, age 28. Kevin, age 17. Mohammed, age 31. Aprile, age 46.” As he gravely said each name, he pulled the cross out of the grass and handed it to a family member or person from the community. Soon, nearly everyone gathered in the circle was holding one of the white wooden crosses.
As the final cross was removed the singer began again: “Oh lord, I want to be in that number. When the saints go marching in.” The crowd of people followed her back into the church carrying the white crosses and placing them in a big pile in front of the pulpit.
Inside the church, with vaulted ceilings and colorful stained glass windows, people stood at the pulpit and spoke. Carolyn Samms, whose family had experienced two murders, spoke with a shaky voice. “It’s hard standing here and it’s hard sitting there, I know it is,” she said. “When you end up with a hole in your heart you never know if it’s going to heal.”
In addition to religious leaders and the family members of murder victims, Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor-elect Jean Quan also spoke. Jordan said that although the police department’s resources are diminishing, all police officers will work as hard as possible to keep Oakland safe, and that his goal is for 2011 is that no crosses be planted in front of St. Columba.
Quan raised the idea of finding mentors for Oakland’s 2,000 “toughest kids”—teens that have missed several days of school or are aging out of foster care. She mentioned that in Oakland the high school drop-out rate for African American males is extremely high, which she said increases their chances of winding up in the streets or in jail. “We can make a friendship and an alliance with those children and I guarantee you if we do that there’ll be less crosses,” she said. “I want us to have reached out to the young men who would be on that pile.”
As the speeches concluded, Quan along with Jordan, community members and clergy signed a pledge to Oakland for 2011. Those who signed the pledge committed to several actions including promising to “heal, protect and unify communities hiding in fear of violence,” “create avenues for justice that restore peace to our communities” and “reach out to those imprisoned in cycles of violence.”
Father McAleenan asked all the people in the church to take each other’s hands and join him in a prayer. From pew to pew and across the aisle, people grabbed their neighbor’s hands and bowed their heads. “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer and grant us peace,” he prayed.