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Poletown saints (10/6/2010)
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What can it actually accomplish?
It's just a sign, stark and simple, and it declares, in the kind of religious language that saturates the city's culture, that "God said ... Thou shall not kill." And suddenly it was appearing on trees and poles all over town.
The woman behind it says the idea came to her in the dead of night.
"I know when you write about the spiritual position, people don't really like to see that," Ovella Andreas says, "but I was asleep and the spirit of God woke me up."
Andreas, 48, is a former church organist who sat for years quietly by the choir until one day she felt the urge to become a pastor. Some years and a lot of training later, she has her own congregation. A few months back, she had a dream telling her to plaster the city with those posters, so at every turn there will be a challenge to the conscience of someone who might take a life.
Andreas admits that her plan is idealistic, an act of faith where nothing else has worked, an appeal to deep-down memories of Sunday sermons about right and wrong in a town where church is still woven into everyday life.
"Of course, there are people who say, 'What can a poster do? Are you serious? These guys could not care less about Thou shall not kill,'" Andreas says. "But the reality is we're losing 10 or 15 people a week to senseless death. Even though we don't know if it's going to do anything, it's better than doing nothing."
She called several printing shops, and a handful made signs for free. She told people about her idea, and some took a few to hang in their neighborhood. A movement began.
If they were carpenters, they'd be boarding up empty houses. If they were cooks they'd be feeding the hungry. But they're church people, and this is what they do.
"This is really the only thing that we have to work with from this side," Andreas says.
Some don't think it'll accomplish much at all.
Among them is the Rev. Willie Lewis, who waits outside a church as a rally is to begin under a cloudy sky that threatens rain. The Obedient Missionary Baptist Church on the city's west side organized it, announced it, invited people to stop by and take a stand against the violence that's so much a part of city life.
Yet at the designated hour there are but two dozen people here, seated at tables, holding stenciled posters or standing by the church steps, waiting for something to happen. Andreas' signs are stacked on a table, ready to be tacked up somewhere. It's not her event, but she was invited to speak here.
Lewis stands nearby in a dark green suit, his hair salt-and-pepper, his demeanor dignified and formal. "All the publicity and this is how it is?" he says in a gravelly voice, looking over the small group that showed up.
The 74-year-old pastor walked the few blocks from his church, Meditation Missionary Baptist, because the rally's organizers asked him to be here to lend some heft to the proceedings. He shakes his head in disappointment, not just at the numbers, but also because this rally, like so many of its kind, mostly draws women who come to lament the havoc wrought by men.
"You got to look for the men and boys," he says, seeing few. "Who's that doing all the violence out there? Men. How you gonna stop that, except with men? Women aren't the ones who are gonna stop nothing. The men are doing it."
Out on the curved road that sweeps past the church, a few church kids shout at the traffic and hold up handmade placards reading "Give Peace a Chance" and "Thou shall not kill." Some cars honk as they pass by.
"That's naïve," Lewis says. "I don't call it wasting time because people should do something, but we're like the wild, wild West. Remember the violence there? How did they stop that? Force — sheriff's department, police, law enforcement. But there's no police here today, man. The police department's in disarray."
As a church leader, he wants the same thing as these women and children do, but after decades of rallies and killings, he's come to doubt that peaceful methods like this will do anything.
But as the traffic light out front goes red, a car stops next to a kid on the side of the road.
The driver asks for a sign.
Bernice Reed leaves the rally for a moment and drives with Andreas to a curbside memorial a mile or so away.
It was just someone's tree until Reed's son got shot next to it. Then his friends and family tied stuffed animals and pictures to it, and now that homeowner has a shrine to a dead kid in the front yard.
When Reed pulls up and sees it, she begins to cry. It's been more than a year since her son was murdered, yet she's never been here before. The sight of this tree cuts through a year's worth of defenses and brings it all back.
What's worse, he was the second of her two sons murdered. The oldest was killed 10 years ago at age 25. Shot by someone he knew, Reed says, after a fistfight escalated. Her youngest was shot in March last year. He made fun of a friend and the friend didn't like it. "The guy who killed my baby boy said he played too much," the 53-year-old says. "He'd play with you until he aggravated you, so that's why he killed him." Both died on the same street, Meyers, a decade apart. Reed had been to one son's memorial but not this one.
"For some reason, with my older son, I would go there all the time and put balloons up, and I would go to the cemetery, but I think by this being my baby at 18 years old, I don't know how to explain it."
Not long ago, Reed heard Andreas on the radio talking about the campaign, called in for signs and started driving around town and leaving them everywhere. If she hears on the news that someone's been killed, she drives to that spot and posts a sign. If she sees a telephone pole or a tree with stuffed animals attached, she'll leave a sign there too.
The poster campaign makes perfect sense to her. "Most people are raised up in church," she reasons. "Even if they stray away, they're brought up in church, so when you see the word 'God' a lot of people fear the name, if they don't fear anyone else. Somebody might see the posters and think twice."
Being face to face with the memorial makes the memories tumble out: how she taught her son to save his money, taught him how to work for what he wanted in life, taught him how to be a man. Memories that drive her to put up those posters.
"Whatever I can get them to nail into," Reed says. A tree. A telephone pole. Anything.
But what can it actually accomplish?
Reed will tell you that if nothing else, if nobody is moved by her efforts, if nothing changes, it still keeps her from falling to pieces. It channels the grief. It's an outlet for an anguished mother's helplessness and pain. Something good has to come out of those deaths, otherwise they would be truly meaningless.
"I don't want another mother to go through what I went through," Reed says.
After lingering a little while, Reed and Andreas climb back into the car and drive away from the shrine. There's a rally to return to and signs to be hung.
Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.