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Give the gift of ourselves to Baltimore

Baltimore reached 300 homicides for the fourth straight year after a 30-year-old man was fatally shot in the face and upper body late Wednesday night.

The juxtaposition was stark: On one hand, a swath of the city was aglow and agog in a holiday wonderland amid the whimsical lights and colorful characters in Hampden for our own Miracle on 34th Street. On the other hand, a newer, and decidedly uncheerful tradition: the marking of the city’s 300th homicide.

Garnett Kennedy, shot to death on Ruskin Avenue, became No. 300 at age 24. We know more about No. 298: 64-year-old Mousa Mohammad Jaber, who operated the Stop 1 convenience store on Garrison Boulevard and, as one mourner said, left his footprints on many hearts. Just two years ago a killer was caught on camera fatally shooting two men and wounding four others outside that store. We also know more about No. 297. That was Antonio Wright, once the police department’s Public Enemy No. 1 for his suspected role in a firebombing that took two lives last year. Though eventually acquitted, he was certainly no innocent.

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There you have it: neighborhood stalwarts caught in the mayhem and purveyors of mayhem caught in the retaliatory mayhem that’s been defining justice and sending death statistics soaring the last few years. “It’s almost like they’re trying to beat some record,” the dumbfounded and grieving son of the store owner, Amar Jaber, told a WJZ reporter.

While some of us ooh and ahh and chuckle at the over-the-top Christmas lights in just about every neighborhood or flit from one holiday gathering to another, others are enduring the rituals of remembrance and burial — or mourning those whose brush with the death angel came earlier in the spree of 300-plus homicides.

I came across a tweet that captures how I feel sometimes. It was written in response to news about DaVonte Friedman, an 18-year-old whose efforts to provide Baltimore youth with alternatives to crime and shortened life spans included testifying before the City Council. On Dec. 1, he became the city’s 285th homicide.

“I love where I’m from,” the person tweeted, “but sometimes I wonder how much can we take. Trying to make this city better requires understanding, investment/resources and education. It’s exhausting, but when you lose hope, that’s when you lose everything. It’s so hard sometimes.”

It is. But even as we complete another orbit of the sun, looking back at what we’ve done and beating ourselves up for what we should have done, we must defy hopelessness. Our main priority must be to save more lives.

The mayor and criminal justice agencies are stepping up their outreach efforts, teaming with reformed ex-convicts to spread the gospel of peace and with social services purveyors and private businesses to offer alternatives to the thug’s life to young adults now teetering on the edge.

In other spaces men and women are coming together to talk, to get to know each other, to, as Maya Angelou wrote, “create a language to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.” Whether it’s black and white Baltimore Episcopalians having frank conversations in a series called “Seeing the Face of God in Each Other” or a multiracial and interfaith group using sacred Christian, Jewish and Muslim texts to seek solutions to criminal justice issues, they are finding that race is at the root to much of what ails Baltimore.

Some of you aren’t ready for these talks. That’s OK. There’s still much to be done. A fellow educator recently recounted in the Afro how she became speechless when a ninth grader said he had no future. “My father is dead. My brother is dead. I had two cousins, they got shot. My uncles are locked up. What do I want to be when I grow up? Nothing. I’m from Baltimore. I’m already dead.”

Many of us might have been as unresponsive as she found herself. But our children cannot afford to wait for us to find our voices. We have to engage kids like that ninth grader — before they become him, before he becomes his own nightmare.

Through Reading Partners, I volunteer to read to and with children at an elementary school in West Baltimore. The Y offers other opportunities to work with children. There are countless ways to be involved.

“Baltimore is not a bad city,” Amar Jaber could still say hours after his father had become homicide No. 298.

While we are in the mood to give gifts and to make new year’s resolutions, let’s keep that in mind and give the gift of ourselves to Baltimore in 2019.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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