At Vernon Park: Mourning the loss of Philadelphians to gun violence

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Local churches planted 288 crosses at Vernon Park March 23 to commemorate 288 Philadelphia residents killed by gun violence in 2012.

Local churches planted 288 crosses at Vernon Park March 23 to commemorate 288 Philadelphia residents killed by gun violence in 2012.

The headlines focus on mass shootings at suburban schools and shopping malls. But by far the largest number of gun deaths in the United States occur in poor neighborhoods in the nation’s big cities and stem from drug deals gone bad or other street crime.

 On March 23, a group of churches in Northwest Philadelphia placed t-shirts on 288 crosses planted in Germantown’s Vernon Park as they mourned the loss of 288 local residents killed by gunfire in 2012.

 “We mourn the loss of potential, we mourn destroyed relationships, we mourn the destruction of neighborhoods that have been violated by violence. We mourn with the families of these 288 children of God,” said the Rev. Amy McGloughlin, 39, pastor of the Germantown Mennonite Church, as she spoke to several dozen volunteers who gathered at the historic park near the corner of Germantown and Chelten avenues.

David McClenic, 23, was shot and killed in Germantown on Feb. 9.

David McClenic, 23, was shot and killed in Germantown on Feb. 9.

Each t-shirt carried the name and age of a person who was shot dead, along with the date of the person’s death. Everyone circled around the crosses with their colorful shirts as the names of the fallen were read aloud.

 One of those names was David McClenic, 23, who was shot and killed near Marion and West Hansberry Streets on Feb. 9. His mother, Melinda McClenic, 49, of West Oak Lane, wiped tears from her eyes as her son was remembered. “It’s very emotional, but it’s also such a beautiful thing…to know that people care what goes on in this world. I hope this shows that guns are not the answer,” she said.

The traveling display is part of an interfaith effort sponsored by two local groups – Heeding God’s Call and Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence. The display started on the lawn of the Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church and will stay in Germantown’s Vernon Park for two weeks before it moves on to another site.

Other local churches involved include Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal, Ark Christian Center, First United Methodist Church of Germantown and First Presbyterian Church of Germantown.

Maurice Hayman, 32, of The Ark Christian Center, hopes the display will "make it real."

Maurice Hayman, 32, of The Ark Christian Center, hopes the display will “make it real.”

Heeding God’s Call describes itself as a grass roots, faith- based organization that is combating illegal weapons and gun violence in Philadelphia. It holds regular protests at area gun stores in an effort to deter straw purchasers who buy guns and then sell them to others.

Companies such as Walmart have adopted a code of conduct to prevent illegal gun sales. The code involves videotaping all retail firearms transactions, maintaining a computerized log of any gun-related crimes where the gun has been traced back to the retailer, accepting only federal- and state-issued photo ID cards, and performing background checks on all employees involved in selling or handling firearms.

“What we would like to see is for them [the city] to take the code of conduct and put it into public policy,” explained Katie Day, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, who also took part in Saturday’s memorial.

 Although restructuring public policy is a key goal, just as important is raising public awareness, volunteers said.  The t-shirt memorial helps get the message across by allowing people to visualize the impact of gun violence in Philadelphia.

“I hope it plants seeds inside people’s hearts,” said Maurice Hayman, 32, of Germantown, who took part in Saturday’s commemoration.  “When they watch it (gun violence) on the news and see another victim, it just affects them for two seconds and then they go about their day. This (the display of crosses) is what makes it real.”

 (Ashley Kuhn can be reached at kuhna2@student.lasalle.edu and 215-317-4856.)