New Orleans enjoys all four seasons in a week during the winter months. Warm, rain, then cool, rain and warm again. It was on one of those autumnal days that Derrielle approached me. It was gloomy outside in the early evening hours, spitting rain, preparing for this week’s winter. Derrielle is precocious 9 years old who has planted on her round face a perpetual smile. She is a member of the after school program that we host at St. Anna’s Church. I make it a habit to walk through the Parish Hall during this time to meet and just briefly talk with the 20 odds kids and ten or so adults who passionately give of their time to help teach these children. During my stroll Derrielle got up from a table across the room and with a newspaper in hand she approached; talking away with that winsome smile before she even got within ear shot. “Children do babble”, I thought to myself.
Without premise, opening line, or any indication of what her subject was she simply asked, “Did you put them up yet?” again that smile radiated. I asked what she was talking about. She said with smile never changing, “The little girls that got shot this week” and handed me the newspaper that she had brought from home; carried all day in school and now presented me with. She began to tell me all about them. She told me that one “little girl” was just about 12 about to have her birthday. The smile faltered but did not go away.
I replied that the weather was raining outside and that I would surely put their names on the board as soon as the weather cleared. I looked at the paper I looked down at Derrielle and expectantly she looked and said, “You need to do that now.” Smile falters once again but does not go away. You see St. Anna’s is the church with the Victims of Violence memorial. We put the names of all murder victims on a board outside in the front of the church. We also have a permanent memorial on a Wall and alas we have very little room left on that. It stretches ten feet by four feet with over 2,100 names of others who died due to urban violence. It starts in 2007 and is still maintained today. “No Derrielle, I can’t today the ink won’t dry. I have to wait until Monday.” This is what the Times Picayune reported (in part written b y Paul Purpura, NOLA.com):
Arabian “Ray Ray” Gayles was killed just eight days shy of her 12th birthday, when bullets gunmen fired outside her Pigeon Town home pierced a wall and struck her as she slept. On Saturday (Sept.14), four days after she would have celebrated that milestone, Arabian was buried following a funeral at the Baptist church at Willow and Monroe streets, only blocks from where she was fatally wounded.
After reading the opening lines I sort of kneeled down so that I could be on eye level with Derrielle. I asked her, “What are you feeling about this?” Again, the smile faltered. It really did not come back much after that. She shrugged, as children do, and said “I don’t know. But you need to put her name up.” I asked again, “Does this make you sad?” Again, a shrug, she looked at her feet and shuffled a bit <discomfort>. Then she said, “I am dreaming about this.”I asked, “What are you dreaming?” Again, a shrug and “I don’t know.” Again I asked, “Are you dreaming about her.” The short answer that a lot of our kids give, “yea” said shyly and eyes cast down. I gave her a hug and asked if she wanted to help me put the name up. She shrugged and said, “yea.”
It was, for me, a very quiet drive home: thoughts tumbling, wondering, trying to understand Derrielle and trying hard to think of a way to take her disquietude away. The streets were dark, the roadway wet, I headed home. I said very little when I got home. Then the dogs greeted me, my wife hugged me, dinner was set, programs to watch and Derrielle and Ray Ray faded for the evening. The weekend came and went the weather was wonderful on Sunday and we enjoyed a great church pic nic at an old building we are restoring to provide a place for kids like Derrielle. Yet, at that time both Derrielle and Ray Ray were not on my mind.
Tuesday came. I did what I usually did on Tuesdays, answered e-mail, set liturgies, wrote some letters asking for donations to build our outreach programs and offered pastoral care to my fellow workers and parishioners. As the glorious cool and dry evening drew near I did what I always do. I started my walk through the Parish Hall. A smaller group of kids and tutors were there.
Each evening a question by one of the kids is posted on the white board in the Parish Hall. Like Jeopardy the answer is given and the children have to guess what the Question is. It’s delightful and sometimes entertaining. Darrel Durham the head of the program was sitting with some of the kids and with Derrielle. She shouted out, “Did you do what we talked about!?” At first I was confused, then the paper came out, the same paper she held last Thursday. Darrell looked a bit somber and he looked at me. He nodded his head toward the white board and said, “Did you see what Derrielle put on the board?” I glanced over and in the usual child-like misshapen letters was written:
Answer: Arabian Ray Ray Gayles
At this point both Darrel and I looked at each other with no small degree of concern and remorse in our eyes because the QUESTION IS: Who got shot and died? I asked again, “What are you feeling about Ray Ray?” Perhaps it was using her name, perhaps it was just time, perhaps it was the moment but the answer was “Sad. It was going to be her birthday.” Derrielle was touched by this moment. A ‘little girl’ like her was shot. She simply does not know how to process this but something deep inside inspired her to say, without saying, “We can’t forget her.” Something deep down inside was saying, without being said, “She’s like me and I’m like her, she’s my sister.” At age nine she does not know how to rage, or to weep, or to rebel or to cry out in the face of this sort of loss. But, deep deep down inside she does; she just doesn’t know how to say it, cry it, or express it. Maybe this is because she is assaulted with it every day that she lives. Ask almost any child that lives in the poorer parts of the city, “What do you do when you hear gun shots?” They all have as quick an answer as if you had said, “What is your favorite color?” usually quicker. “STOP AND DROP!!!” they will shout out.
So, from across the room Derrielle shouts, “Did you do what we talked about?!” A wavering smile, looking at shoes, shuffling feet, I will answer, “Today I will.” No we won’t forget Ray Ray we won’t forget Derrielle we can’t forget our children. There is an abundance of promise resident within our children just like Derrielle’s inner self is tenacious, demanding, angry and seeking. You and I … the grownups, have a lot of work to do.