Church of slain man uses killing as a call to action

Members feel 70-year-old caretaker's absence in first Sunday service since his murder

vigil planned for today

August 01, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Milton Hill wasn't the most visible among worshipers at his neighboring Ark Church, mostly watching the congregation from a spot in the back of the room during a mid-week service, or while doing odd jobs in the church during choir practices.

But at the congregation's first Sunday service since his killing last week, Hill's absence was felt from the parking lot to the pulpit.

It was the first Sunday that Ark churchgoers noticed that the grass on the East North Avenue property wasn't meticulously manicured, and that the remnants of weekend trash weren't completely cleared by 6 a.m.

The 70-year-old Hill — whose helpful nature and residence next to the church made him its volunteer caretaker and extra set of eyes for more than a decade — wasn't standing in his usual spot on the landing of his apartment stairs, greeting churchgoers as they walked in.

Instead, his face peered out from a flier that ushers handed out with church bulletins, advertising a vigil and to be held today in honor of his life, and condemnation of his senseless killing.

"Members and neighbors are feeling vulnerable," the Rev. J.L. Carter, senior pastor of Ark Church, said in a Sunday sermon. "Members have said,' Pastor, what do we do now, after it hit so close to our house?' "

Hill wasn't a particularly religious man, but he was church family nonetheless, Ark members said Sunday.

"Our worlds have been shaken because a member of our family was murdered in cold blood," Carter roared into the microphone during his sermon. "Milton was everything to us, and because of a violent act he is no more."

Hill was the city's eighth homicide victim last week, including a Johns Hopkins researcher stabbed in a Charles Village robbery, two people killed in nearby Station North and a 19-year-old fatally stabbed during a fight in Northeast Baltimore.

On Friday morning, Hill was found slumped against a fence, lying in a pool of blood. He had been shot. The trademark green scooter he used to get around to places he couldn't bike to was missing, leading police to believe that the motive may have been robbery. There were no suspects in the murder on Sunday.

Tonight, Hill's family, friends and those who knew him through his services to the church and community will join Baltimore residents and city leaders in a prayer vigil for him and others who fell victim to the city's unrelenting violence last week.

Members of other communities struck by the recent violence will also take part in the event. The vigil will take place at the church, located at 1263 E. North Avenue, at 6 p.m.

While Carter promised early in his sermon that he would reserve his most impassioned thoughts on Hill's death for the vigil, it wasn't long before the murder became a testament for faith in God — and a call to action for city leaders.

He drew on recent murders that have drawn the most attention in recent weeks, such as that of John Crowder, "the basketball star" whose promising high school career was cut short by a bullet and his attraction to the streets, Stephen Pitcairn, "the Johns Hopkins researcher" who was trying to cure cancer, and now "Milton," who, he said, "did a lot of stuff."

To a chorus of "Amens," Carter spoke of how there's a perception that the HBO series, 'The Wire,' may have been too harsh in depicting Baltimore's crime, but how, really, "We all know it's the truth."

'Tell it, pastor," members of the congregation sang back.

"And, then we are told that crime is down," he continued, "That might sound good — but when families are bereaving the loss of loved ones … it borders on insult."

Carter also touched on the fact that everyone, regardless of background, should be protected in the city, and their deaths considered of equal outrage.

"It should not matter where you live or work, it shouldn't matter your skin color, we all deserve better than we've been given," he said.

As members filed out of the church Sunday, they said their church would never be the same.

"This has a devastating effect on us," said Desiree Curry, an employee of the Ark Bookstore — which Hill lived above for decades — and whose employees he would ensure got to their cars safely every night. "It's taken a toll on the whole church family. It's going to be a void there for a while."

"It's going to be [sad] not seeing him leaning over, saying hi as usual," said Earleen Cypress, whose father founded the church nearly 75 years ago and who has belonged to it all her life.

She said she could not recall any comparable tragedy befalling the church before, and added that her father would have given the advice to continue to love and pray for both the perpetrators and victims.

Cypress would like to think she was that strong, she said, chuckling at a comment about a baseball bat coming in handy if she ever came face-to-face with the people who killed Hill.

"It hurts, it's sore," she said. "But we don't treat the outside world the way they treat us."

Vigil for recent murder victims:

Who: Family, church members and friends of Milton Hill, members of Baltimore City Council, and community associations from various neighborhoods

What: Prayer vigil and call to action against violence

When: Monday, Aug. 2, 6 p.m.

Where: Ark Church, 1263 E. North Ave.

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