Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.
"That's behind us," cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family's good fortune. "We beat the statistics."
But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the "streets are cold," Barganier told mourners at Ray's funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.
Ray's death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend's house watching her kids.
"Why couldn't God stop this?" the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. "He couldn't. There's some things God doesn't give us the answer for. That doesn't mean we lose faith."
More than 300 people crowded into Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ in West Baltimore to remember Ray in a ceremony that lasted more than three hours as family members wailed over his open casket.
Pastors, family and friends issued stirring reminders to trust in God's plan and remember Ray's example. He worked hard, they said, and steered clear of trouble.
Kevin Lee, Ray's cousin, addressed the young adults in the crowd, urging them to prioritize their faith and respect their elders over clubs and nightlife. "You are a coward if you have to take a weapon and take a life, he said, drawing nods and amens from the crowd.
"I say to the young people, 'What are we doing with the life God gave us?'" he added.
Many of Baltimore's murder victims are black men in their teens or 20s — the average age last year was 31. There were 235 homicides in the city last year, and there have been 38 so far in 2014.
Family members — including Ray's parents — displayed a mixture of grief, fatigue, exasperation and prayer.
Ruth Goode, Ray's mother, was held by family members as she leaned over the open casket for several minutes. A young woman stomped and sobbed until she was carried to a pew, where she slumped in grief. Someone fanned her to make sure she didn't faint.
During a song, Ray's father, also named Craig, stood, closed his eyes and raised his hands into the air before using a white handkerchief to wipe tears streaming from his face.
Deborah Ray, Craig's stepmother, read a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes about the different seasons of life that come at times only God knows — including "a time to be born and a time to die … a time to kill and a time to heal … a time to weep and a time to laugh."
Punctuality was part of Ray's job as a public bus driver, and Karen Johnson-Bey, an MTA employee, said Ray — whose love for cologne matched his fastidiousness — raised his colleagues' spirits at an often stressful job.
"We're going to miss him," she said. "Especially us sisters, we're going to miss that smell."
In wooden pews scattered all around, other MTA employees laughed or cried including a contingent from the training division who had arrived in a bus parked across from the church.
Mourners also read condolences to the family from Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and City Council member Nick Mosby and his wife, Marilyn. The City Council also sent a proclamation in Ray's honor.
Baltimore Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway spoke, telling mourners that his brother was also murdered and that he has reminded himself that he will someday see him again — just as he said everyone will see Ray.
Another speaker said he was thankful a suspect was in custody and off the streets. Kevin Barnell Carroll, 34, an acquaintance of the neighbor, is accused of shooting Ray as he waited for officers to arrive.
The Rev. Willie E. Ray, a cousin who also serves as chairman and founder of Save Another Youth Stop Killing Coalition, a program supported by the city and Urban League, said the best way to remember Craig Ray was to continue telling his story, an example of someone who for his brief life had stood out and survived in a city of frequent violence.
"Craig's life was not in vain," Willie E. Ray said. "He was a martyr."
Twitter.com/justingeorgeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun