THE CITY began consuming its young early in 2003. The year was only four days old when a hail of bullets sent Melvin Columbus Williams to an early death.
"Melvin Columbus Williams IV, 16, of the 6200 block of Plantview Way was taken to Sinai Hospital by friends after a shooting at 8:30 p.m. in the 3400 block of Park Heights Ave., and later pronounced dead." Thus read the story in The Baltimore Sun.
The next day Travon Morris, only 5, was, police said, scalded to death by his mother, who was sentenced to 20 years for the crime in August. On Jan. 27, 16-year-old Maurice Ireland Jr. "was shot while standing with another person in the 800 block of Ensor St.," according to a Sun story. Davon Alexander Lindsey, 17, was shot in the head and body less than two weeks later. Dennis Williams and Marcus Davon Johnson, both 16, met similar fates on the street: shot to death.
And so it went in Baltimore in 2003 - children and teen-agers, ranging in age from 19 years to 2 months old, killed by one means or another. Some were shot. At least one was run over by a careless driver. A couple of infants died because of abusive elders. Most received brief mention in the news media and then, more than likely, disappeared from the minds of most Baltimoreans.
But there is one place where they were remembered, where candles were lighted in their memories and their names called Thursday as 2003 gave way to 2004. At the Cathedral of the Incarnation, the Episcopal church that stands majestically at University Parkway and St. Paul Street, about 50 parishioners gathered on New Year's Day in front of the "Children of the Light" altar. Forty-four candles burned at the altar, in the rear of the church. Parishioners light one candle for each Baltimore child they say was killed by violence. Their numbers don't match exactly the Baltimore Police Department figures for juvenile homicide victims, and they never will. Cathedral of the Incarnation parishioners include 18-year-olds, who technically aren't juveniles in the criminal justice worldview.
Officer Troy Harris of the Baltimore Police Department said the official figure for 2003 juvenile homicides - victims younger than 18 - is 33, down from 38 the previous year. The difference of 11 in the police and church counts is exactly the number of those on the Cathedral of the Incarnation's list who are over 17 years old: Ten were 18-year-olds and one was a 19-year-old.
"They seem like such kids," Katharine LeVeque, a Cathedral of the Incarnation parishioner, said of why 18- and 19-year-olds are included in the memorial and given candles at the altar. "They're really not grown-ups, even if they are technically. They're so young. It's so sad. I think about my grandchildren, who are about those ages."
LeVeque's grandchildren range in age from 6 months to 21 years, which puts them in precisely the age range of almost every homicide victim memorialized at the altar. She and her fellow church members don't get much comfort in lumping 18- and 19-year-olds into the adult category and thereby reducing the official number of children killed, as though it will be less of a shock. Even with those technical adults left off, the list still looks pretty shocking: Ten 16-year-old boys were killed in Baltimore in 2003, along with nine 17-year-olds, three 14-year-olds and two 15 year-olds. The message is clear: If you're between the ages of 14 and 17, don't let the sun set on you in this town.
This state of affairs should bring all of us in this city to tears. That's exactly what happened to Ruth Dearden, another parishioner at the Cathedral of the Incarnation who thought something should be done to bring attention to Baltimore's young homicide victims.
"I remembered [South African Bishop] Desmond Tutu crying when he was talking about a victim of necklacing in that country," Dearden said. "That's the way I feel about the children of Baltimore."
She approached Van Gardner, the dean of the cathedral, about some type of memorial service. It was Gardner, Dearden said, who thought up the candlelight memorial, which ends each year with a prayer service in which parishioners come up and blow out each candle, symbolizing the start of a new year.
It would be nice to think that come Dec. 31, 2004, there will be no candles burning at the "Children of the Light" altar, but Baltimore being what it is - not "Charm City" or "The City That Reads" or the city where we "Believe" or anything else our politicians say it is - that will never happen. So the parishioners at the Cathedral of the Incarnation will continue to light the candles. But just as important, they'll continue with their efforts in tutoring and conducting food and school supply drives at Abbotston Elementary School - a short drive away - and with their efforts in providing money for Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Sandtown-Winchester.
"We believe," LeVeque said, with not the slightest hint of a pun directed at the latest political slogan, "that we've got to do more than just light candles."