City's weary mourner

The Rev. Willie Ray has held vigils for decades. Last week, it was for a young relative.

September 25, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun reporter

The Rev. Willie Ray rolled into a dilapidated Pigtown neighborhood with a fistful of fliers and a beat-up lectern.

"We're here today to say no to drugs," he shouted.

His voice grew louder.

"We're here because we're fed up."

Ray has probably uttered these words thousands of times on desolate Baltimore street corners in his decades-long role as the city's unofficial professional mourner.

"We're not going to stand around idle while some other child is killed."

Only this time, in Pigtown, the child was one of his own.

George Young was 23 and Ray's great-nephew. He was fatally shot on a recent Monday on Cleveland Street.

And so, as Ray has done so many times for so many strangers, he prayed with the family and organized a candlelight vigil on the spot where the victim fell. He made up fliers. He put on his gray suit.

But his heart really wasn't in it.

"I'm tired now," Ray said.

He is 57 years old, a native of Baltimore who has lived on the east and west sides, and he has been leading vigils for his Save the Youth Ministries for nearly half his life. His knees are wobbly - "too much marching," he says - and he moves slowly.

"Please write this," he said, "Reverend Ray wants to go back to Boston and finish his master's degree. He's praying and hoping that someone will come in and fill his seat."

It gets hard to keep up. Six people were killed between the time his great-nephew was shot and the vigil was held. He has already scaled back - he comes out now only for killings that grab public attention, such as those of children.

"In the minds of many," Ray said a day after the gathering in Pigtown, "I'm just a poor suffering John out there and nobody is listening."

It is certainly likely that Ray's street-corner ministry will go on and that Ray himself will continue to appear at the lectern. A self-promoter, he reliably calls newspapers and television stations to alert them to his next sidewalk gathering.

Nine times he tried to get thousands of people to lock hands to form a six-mile-long chain across the city to show solidarity against violence.

The final Love Hands Across Baltimore Crusade in 1997 drew fewer than 100 people. Only 50 showed up in 1995.

But even as he contemplates retirement, Ray's vigils attract attention. The Baltimore Police Department saw fit to send a top commander to address a crowd in Pigtown that started small but steadily grew as the evening wore on.

"You have to engage people where they are," said Maj. Rick Hite, head of the Police Department's community relations division. "It is introspective. You want people to think, `It could be me found in a pool of blood on the street.'"

According to police, Ray's great-nephew and a friend were hanging on Cleveland Street with a group Sept. 11 when two men walked up and everybody ran away. One of the men shot Young in the upper body, and he stumbled to Cross Street, where he lay until he was rushed in an ambulance to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he died. Will Edmondson, 29, was also shot, but he survived.

Detectives haven't named any suspects and said they don't know of a motive in the killing, though Ray said his young relative was mixed up with some "bad people." Young had a lengthy arrest record and had convictions for drug possession and burglary.

Nobody at Wednesday's vigil seemed to know what happened either - or wanted to talk about it. One young man, who said he was close with Young, thought it might have been a robbery.

At first, it appeared that Ray's vigil might not happen at all. He arrived late, and nobody had come. He directed a friend to yank the lectern out of a truck and set it up in front of a vacant rowhouse. With a flier in hand, he approached strangers hanging out in the neighborhood and beseeched them to join his vigil. Some were receptive.

Gradually, more and more people showed up. Ronald Wright limped over to the corner and joined the group. Just 16 hours earlier, someone had shot and killed his son, a 26-year-old man named Devin Wright. He died in the back of an elementary school on Gold Street in West Baltimore.

Now Ray had another person to mourn.

Wright yelled out a throaty "Amen" and asked others to shout with him.

"It's almost like we've been cursed," Ray said.

Ray rambled a bit. Everyone prayed. Then they chanted. Ray led everyone in song, "He's got the whole world in his hands." There were moments of silence. Some people talked on their cell phones and didn't seem to be listening. Others cried.

Down the street, a few residents sat on their steps drinking red wine from plastic cups, and complained that some of the people praying for peace were the same people hustling on the corner.

Ray does more than organize vigils. For years, he has talked of expanding something called the "safe houses" program. The idea is that community groups or churches would take over dilapidated homes on street corners and turn them into places from which outreach programs are run.

"We want one on every corner, like New York Chicken," he said.

Right now, he's got the first and only one in the city. It is his home on Harlem Avenue. Like other projects, the safe-house program didn't quite make it. Part of the ceiling in the kitchen collapsed after a storm where rain leaked in through an upstairs window.

In his office there is an oversize check for $10,000 from the city of Baltimore, a reminder of money he once received at a public ceremony staged for television.

In the 1970s, Ray got a quarter-million dollars to convert an old police station into Redeemer's Palace, a place for children to find God and where a drug dealer could find help. The project put him in the spotlight, but it, too, never got off the ground.

Ray said he could not begin to remember when he held his first vigil.

He has a mission statement he once typed up, now so old that he said it has "turned gold" with age.

"It is like a guy washing cars," he said. "He doesn't know how many cars he's washed. He just keeps washing them."

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