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A song for the weary after a year of tragedies and the loss of hope in Baltimore

A song for the weary after a year of tragedies and the loss of hope in Baltimore
Her photograph was surrounded by flower arrangements at a public service at Helping Hands Ministries for Jacquelyn Smith, the Harford County woman who was killed after giving money to a panhandler in East Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Having never heard the song before, I was not prepared for the emotional punch that came when the band kicked up and the five women on stage at Helping Hands Ministries started singing. Of all the moments in a year that left me and many others weary — from 300 more killings in Baltimore, and more than twice that many from drug overdoses; from the deaths of newspaper colleagues in Annapolis — the one at the start of the memorial service on Dec. 7 for Jacqui Smith was the most powerful.

It was so instantly joyous and bold — and so far from anything you could call mournful — that I suddenly could not see. I dropped my notepad to make both hands available for the furtive wiping of tears. The women were singing a modern Gospel tune, “Every Praise,” by Hezekiah Walker. It is catchy and big as a Broadway show-stopper, and some audacious person had decided to open the service with it.

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“Every praise is to our God/Every word of worship with one accord/Every praise, every praise is to our God.”

The people in the church started standing and clapping in rhythm, and soon everyone was swaying and singing, and it became clear that, while her friends were there to mourn Jacqui Smith, they did not want a somber service. They wanted to celebrate her life — and her last act on Earth. “You know, we don’t call it a funeral,” said the pastor, Bishop Roger Tatuem.

It seems like everyone everywhere knew the story within a day or two. Jacqui Smith was killed while trying to give money to a panhandler on a rainy night in Baltimore, her husband said. After the deaths of children caught in the insane crossfires of violence, Smith’s death marked the absolute nadir of our experiences with crime over the last four horrible years. Smith, her husband and his daughter had gone to a dance; they were driving home, through East Baltimore, when Smith saw a woman with a baby and a cardboard sign. The woman was seeking a handout. Smith wanted to give her some money through the car window and, in the next moment, a man tried to rob her. Then he stabbed her.

At the first report of these details, you reached for words, and there were none. You reached for outrage and wondered if there was any left. You felt frustration — that the municipal leadership has been unable to get the violence under control, to restore some confidence that Baltimore can get past this long misery. You felt confusion and unease about the city you love — that something is deeply wrong and bad, more so than in the past, though many things in many corners of Baltimore seem right and good.

You have a sense of foreboding — that there are more desperate people in our streets than previously understood, that opioids have ruined far more lives than we want to know. You experience feelings of hopelessness — that we have so much violence, including mass shootings, like the one at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis in late June; that a country that pretends to greatness had close to 40,000 gun deaths in 2017, and you can’t imagine that 2018 was much better.

And so you start to feel weary. You start to feel numb. The death of seven-year-old Taylor Hayes, in a shooting last summer on the west side of the city, felt like the bottom. But then the death of Jacqui Smith took us to still another place — to “rock bottom,” in the words of Doc Cheatham, one of the city’s stalwart citizens.

So now you’re sitting in this theater-like modern church in a rural area of Harford County, close to 40 miles from the scene of the crime, and suddenly the band kicks up, and you hear those amazing voices: “Sing hallelujah to our God/Glory hallelujah is due our God/Every praise, every praise is to our God.” And you realize that some never give up and never stop giving, never run from adversity, never lose faith, never lose hope that there will be a better day in this city and in this country — and maybe even in this life.

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