In 1982, President Ronald Reagan established the third week in April as annual Victim’s Rights Week, as part of an expanding initiative to provide for victims of crime across our country. This tradition has continued for over twenty years, giving national and local recognition to the experiences of victims as well as to the individuals and organizations who work to support them in their time of need.
Friday, April 19, 2013, was a day filled with tension and sorrow as the nation turned its collective eye to the tragic events in Boston. But that evening, hundreds of co-victims of homicide (family and friends of murder victims), victims of serious crime, and others in the Philadelphia community committed to the cause of victims services gathered together at the First Unitarian Church in Center City in Philadelphia’s 12th annual Candle Lighting tribute to the victims and survivors of crime in our city.
As Sam Daniels played the piano and softly sang, “My Living Shall Not Be in Vain,” they filed into the church. It was impossible not to be struck by the diversity of the group. Certainly all races and all ages were represented. Babies were carried at the breast of young girls next to women in their 80’s and 90’s. Some came alone; others in groups of 8 to 10. Most were dressed in dark colors and attire suitable for church, but others were in tank tops and flip flops. Many Muslim women wore hijab scarves and some full burqas. Some in attendance wore t-shirts bearing the pictures of a slain loved one; others held pictures; one family even brought a poster board filled with images of their lost son. But they all sat shoulder to shoulder in rows as the church filled to capacity, blending into one large community feeling pain, but also hope.
Myra Maxwell, AVP’s Director of Victim Services, welcomed the group, referencing not only the tragedy in Boston, but previous events that have evoked our nation’s horror: Oklahoma City and Sandy Hook, place names that have become synonymous with grief and shock. Three victims addressed the group, speaking eloquently of the impact violent crime had on them and their families:
- William Spratley, whose young, college-student daughter (who had given birth only one month previously) was slaughtered by her boyfriend/baby’s father and dumped in the closet of her apartment;
- Remedios Guzman, a victim of sexual abuse starting at age 4 in Mexico, who shared her pain through an interpreter;
- Movita Johnson, who moved from the city in an unsuccessful attempt to keep her children safe and spoke of the murder of her 18 year old son while holding her three year old grandson who was born 29 days after his father’s death.
As people collected themselves after sharing the pain of those three brave speakers, the time came for them to acknowledge and remember their lost loved ones. Everyone in attendance was given the opportunity when arriving to write down their loved one’s name and some special memory.
While the last of the day’s light shined through a beautiful stained glass window of an angel with outstretched arms and the comforting words, “Blessed are the Pure in Heart for They Shall See God,” the roll call began. Tearful but strong, the words of the attendees were called out; many were there representing multiple victims. They might have looked very differently but their messages were amazingly similar: “We love you. We miss you. Stop the violence. Get the guns off the streets.” As each person’s message was read, they lit a candle and received a flower.
By the end of the ceremony, the disparate individuals had become one community, brought together by tragedy but bolstered by the comforting presence of so many people who had shared their experience. As US Attorney Zane David Memeger stated in his opening remarks, the goal of the memorial was twofold: to gather together in the belief that victims of crime and their families should not be forgotten and to acknowledge the need to work together to prevent future tragedies through improving education, jobs, housing, parenting, and building character and respect in young people.
As the specter of terroristic violence in Boston, combined with community violence in our own city, remains in front of us, we all should be inspired by the strength and resilience shown by the survivors and commit ourselves with renewed vigor to preventing future tragedies.
- Julie Rausch, Executive Director