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Acknowledging 'our debt to this family'

In the end, the hundreds who gathered at Mount Pleasant Church and Ministries yesterday for the funeral of Angela Dawson and her children sought strength in their faith.

It seemed the only way to find solace and bring meaning to the tragic fire that swept through the family's East Baltimore home nine days ago. The Rev. Clifford M. Johnson Jr., senior pastor at Mount Pleasant, told the mourners that they were engaged in a spiritual war in which only God and faith could carry them to victory.

"It's a war between light and darkness, between good and evil," he said, taking his message from Habakkuk, an Old Testament prophet who wondered about God's presence amid the violence of his time. "God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power and love. ... We're going to win."

Dawson, 36, and five of her six children died in a raging fire authorities believe was set in retaliation for her refusal to ignore the drug dealing in her neighborhood around the 1400 block of E. Preston St. Keith and Kevin Dawson, both 9; Carnell Dawson Jr., 10; Juan Ortiz, 12; and LaWanda Ortiz, 14, perished on the upper floors of their three-story rowhouse.

Dawson's husband, Carnell Dawson Sr., 43, escaped by jumping out of a second-story window, but was gravely injured. He died Wednesday. His funeral arrangements are pending.

When Johnson announced his death in church, many gasped.

The sight of six caskets, each topped by flowers and a photograph of the deceased, brought many to tears yesterday. In the week since the fatal arson, the Dawsons and their children have come to symbolize not only the courage needed to stand against drug dealing, but the high price paid when trying to bring peace to a neighborhood.

Those who knew the Dawsons spoke of a man and woman who married 12 years ago and built a loving family. LaWanda enjoyed drawing; Carnell Jr. often did gymnastics flips to the amazement of his classmates; Juan was a model student who became a reading buddy for kindergartners; Kevin's classroom dedicated its library to him; and Keith was remembered for his affection.

A poem written by a father and his son who attended Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School with the Dawson boys, began with this line: "There are empty chairs in this place, hard to fill, hard to face."

Of the dozens of dignitaries and public officials who attended, three spoke.

"We have a debt to this family, and that debt is to take their place, to stand up against evil in our communities," said John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "We will try to live every day in their memory."

Walters' office is directing $1 million to $2 million to better protect some Baltimore neighborhoods with high crime rates. The money will help to pay for additional foot patrols, police overtime, surveillance cameras and improved street lighting.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris began by quoting from William Shakespeare's Coriolanus: "What is the city but the people?"

Norris, in full dress uniform, said he had seen the worst of humanity during his long police career, but nothing matched the brutality and callousness of what happened last week.

Darrell L. Brooks, 21, is accused of kicking in the Dawson family's door, pouring gasoline throughout the first floor, then setting the house ablaze. Brooks, who lived a few doors from the Dawsons, is being held in the city jail on six counts of first-degree murder. A seventh murder charge has not been filed in the death of Carnell Dawson Sr.

During his brief remarks, Norris emphasized the need for Baltimore's citizens not to let their passion and anger over what happened dissipate: "We have to realize the sacrifice of the Dawson family is in vain if we do not sustain the outrage. I'm going to throw a challenge out to the community. This is all of our problem. ... Are we going to go and achieve our destiny, or are we going to let these people die in vain? We have a choice."

Mayor Martin O'Malley quoted from the sermon that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral for four young girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. The mayor, his voice often breaking with emotion, cast the Dawson case as a struggle for justice, a battle in which hate would be conquered.

"You think you have purchased half of us and intimidated the rest of us, but you are as foolish as you are cruel," he said, speaking of the drug dealers and criminals who have made city streets unsafe. "As long as Baltimore remembers the Dawsons, we will never surrender to your hate. ... The fight is not over. Love and justice will have the final word."

The crowd rose to its feet as the mayor returned to his seat. There was applause and shouts of "hallelujah." A brief video presentation of family photos followed, the theme taken from St. John's gospel: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Then Johnson spoke, building his sermon around Habakkuk's plea: "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! ... Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."

After he had concluded, and more than two dozen had answered his altar call, a nine-member honor guard of Baltimore police officers began a somber procession to lay a city flag across Angela Dawson's coffin. Their solemn demeanor was a marked contrast to the joyful gospel song that rang throughout Mount Pleasant's sanctuary.

"When we all get to heaven," the congregation and choir sang, "what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we will sing and shout the victory."

Thirty pallbearers carried the coffins to the hearses waiting in the gray afternoon for the long drive to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. The family was not buried in the Fallen Heroes section of the cemetery, as city officials had said they would be this week.

Shortly after 2 p.m., four hours after the service had begun, 11 city police motorcycles led a procession of more than 50 vehicles. Melvin Sanders, 51, stood watching, drawn to the church by the enormity of what had happened to the Dawson family, and what he felt.

"That pain just struck me in my heart," he said. "It's just something you never thought you'd see. Look at all those hearses, a whole family wiped out. A whole family."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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