NEW YORK — At St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan, somewhere between 60 to 70 bamboo crosses with T-shirts hanging off them decorated the yard during this year’s Holy Week.
They were small, only about knee high, but it makes sense for them to be so short. The crosses represented a child under 11 who was injured or killed by guns since Easter last year.
The installation covers only a sliver of the more than 700 children killed in that time span who are listed at the Gun Violence Archive. The Rev. Winnie Varghese, the church’s rector, used the archive to pull the names and stories of the victims with details of their lives and death to put on the shirts.
“You couldn’t walk around if it was all of them,” Varghese said.
There was a shirt for the six siblings killed by their grandfather in Florida last September. There was one for 3-year-old Quinton Gibson Jr. who found his mother’s loaded handgun and shot himself in Alabama. A shirt that simply said “Taken too soon” was also displayed.
Varghese and her congregants helped make the shirts and then put up the crosses on Palm Sunday, which she said was a sober affair after a more lighthearted procession where the congregation walked to a nearby church and sang together.
Holy Week, Varghese said, is a time when it makes sense for a church to draw attention to gun violence. It’s when Christians think about the physicality of Jesus and how easy it was for even him to be killed. Creating a physical memorial brings the gun violence problem into focus when congregants are already thinking of the frailty of life.
It’s also a time where Christians are reminded Jesus was put to death under the Roman Empire, which Varghese compares to the collusion of the government with the gun industry that allows thousands of people every year to be killed.
“Guns are good for the gun industry,” she said. “No one else.”
The similarities Varghese sees don’t stop there. During Easter services, Varghese tells the story of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas. She said that parallel, in particular, is easy.
“How many children will we betray to this industry?” she said. “If 700 children were killed by any other way it would be considered an epidemic.”
This is not St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery's first time taking a stand on a social justice issue. For Easter last year, they put up about 25 crosses for people killed by gun violence in New York state. Last December, the church hung a banner that reads "Black Lives Matter.” It’s still there.
The neighborhood has responded positively. Signs explaining the installation are strung up along the length of the church’s fence and many people walking by stop to read and look at the yard and sometimes take photos. Varghese said neighborhood tours have incorporated the project into their trips. Two police officers came in and thanked her for her efforts to bring attention to gun violence.
“They are the ones who have to show up when kids die,” she said.
The crosses are situated between graves that are hundreds of years old — St. Mark’s, an Episcopal church, is the oldest continuous space of worship in New York City.
It’s a haunting tribute. Varghese said she doesn’t think it's a beautiful project, but a provocative one. She said it’s important to critique culture from the gospel, which is often more radical than society would tolerate.
“I hope it would encourage other churches to use their spaces,” she said.
As of Sunday, the day after the crosses came down, there are already more than 3,000 deaths listed by the Gun Violence Archive in 2015. Varghese will have plenty of names to pick for next year’s tribute