CAMDEN — Every December since 1995, a candle has been lit for each of Camden’s homicide victims during the year. Near the flame, Sister Helen Cole prays that their families find peace.
Cole started the vigil that year out of frustration that the homicide tally had reached a grim record of 58 homicides in one year.
This year, as the death toll has surpassed that record and reached 60 as of Friday, a symbol of healing also will mark the four-day vigil, which starts Dec. 28.
The hand-painted crosses bearing the names and ages of recent homicide victims that for seven weeks have been clustered in a park in front of City Hall will be part of this year’s vigil at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
They will be displayed near the candles and be available for families to take home.
Stop Trauma on People, the anti-violence group that erected the crosses in Roosevelt Plaza, has said the crosses were intended to remember victims, shame officials into action to curb a rising homicide tally, and decry the trauma inflicted on residents by violence and poverty.
Cole, a social worker, said she agreed to the group’s request in October to incorporate the crosses in the vigil because they have helped families to heal.
“Our vigil is a peace vigil. One of the ways for people to find peace is through healing,” she said. “It’s about people being validated. Your loved ones mattered, no matter what.”
On Monday, Cole’s staff at Guadalupe Family Services will start sending out letters inviting families to the hour dedicated to their loved one during the 60-hour vigil.
Additional homicide victims would be added to the final hour, which ends at 7 p.m. Dec. 31.
The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, a STOP member, said residents had made connections with the crosses.
“For many people, it’s a real remembrance of someone, and it speaks to them that other people remember their loved once besides them,” said Putthoff, executive director and founder of Hopeworks, a North Camden nonprofit focused on youth development.
Some residents regularly visit the crosses in Roosevelt Plaza, leaving flowers. A “cross-planting” ceremony after most homicides has drawn family members. Strangers, too, have stood solemnly in front of the knee-high white crosses.
But the crosses have had a tinge of controversy.
Two City Council members said they believed the public park in front of City Hall was not the appropriate location for such a memorial.
One councilman, Brian Coleman, said the sight of the more than 80 crosses bearing the victims’ names from this year and earlier underscored the searing image of the city as violent and dangerous. Coleman said he feared the crosses would discourage visitors and business.
Cole said she believes the crosses spoke to the city’s current situation as the vigil intended to look forward.
“I have hope for Camden, and when I give up hope, I shouldn’t be here anymore,” she said. “When I have the vigil, I’m hoping for a peaceful year in 2013 — that families don’t have to suffer like these families have suffered.”
An Associated Press Member Exchange report