The telephone pole across the street from where I work is flanked by votive candles and empty whiskey bottles. Deflated mylar balloons are tied just above the electrical box which reads, “RIP Omar.” This is the second memorial for the dead that I pass each day on my way to work in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven.
The Hill neighborhood is a vibrant neighborhood, full of warmth and culture. People know each other. They call down the street to say hi to one another and often wish me a good morning. The Hill neighborhood is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Haven with a reputation for drugs and violence and the general struggle to survive. The houses are old and run down: broken furniture sitting at the end of many driveways, cracked TV’s and dresser sets. Lottery tickets and newspapers are scattered along the streets: old hope and old news.
Many of my clients from the Hill haven’t had stable housing for years, maybe not ever. They are single mothers and fathers who cannot find employment because they cannot find childcare. They are high school graduates who still struggle with basic reading and writing skills. They are survivors of trauma with unmet mental health needs. They are people who often feel abandoned. In the Hill the streets themselves speak to that abandonment: an empty lot full of couches and blankets, a brick building with a faded for-sale sign, and an old gas station with weeds growing up around rusting gas pumps. Things fade and people forget. Maybe that’s just life, a natural response to feeling overwhelmed by traumatic pasts and seemingly hopeless futures. Forgetting allows us to move on, to distance ourselves from situations that are too hard to handle, that seem impossible to address. However it is our call as followers of Christ to remember.
Recently Dean McGowan led a colloquium on the ancient concept of worship. In the original text, the word “worship” is better translated as something closer to the word “service” rather than the expression of our faith through music, prayer, liturgy, etc. In order to worship, and therefore to serve, we must first remember the people that we are called to serve. We cannot mutually forget and fulfill Christ’s call to true worship. Christ does not call us to politely excuse ourselves from the suffering of others, but rather to follow His example of remembrance and service.
On October 13th, a 19 year old man was shot and killed in the parking lot of an apartment building at 210 Davenport, a few blocks from my work. Perhaps soon another memorial will beg us to remember tragedy, to remember that which is hard to think about and painful to address. A single violent act preceded by a host of issues, most of them systemic. Poverty, oppression, racism. I hope that rather than ignore these issues and push them from our mind that we choose to remember, to worship, to serve, and to meet the request demanded by Christ as well as a dozen candles huddled around a telephone pole.