Street ‘death shrines’ cry out for church response
The street memorials show up almost as soon as the body of the shooting victim is taken to the city morgue.
Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, associate professor of theology and ethics at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, began studying what she calls street “death shrines” one day a few years ago when she was on her way to the office.
Day after day, it seemed, she would pass another makeshift memorial to a loved one who had met a violent death.
“As I was driving by, I saw them, but I didn’t really see them,” Daniels-Sykes told an audience at Xavier University’s Institute for Black Catholic Studies recently, a highlight of the 2016 Sister Eva Regina Martin, S.S.F., Ph.D., Lecture series. “I slowed down initially, but I kept on going.”
It was only a few days later that another memorial erected a few streets away “made me wonder what was going on.”
Another day, another shrine
Then, again, a few days passed, and a third shrine popped up overnight.
This time, Daniels-Sykes stopped her car and walked over to the shrine with her camera.
“That whole summer of 2013 I was studying the newspaper and listening to the news, and I was able to walk in on those visuals – all of those people who were drawing and praying and screaming,” she said.
She got emotionally upset once when a news photographer, feeling he needed to get a close-up shot, moved within inches of a grieving relative in order to capture video of the mourning.
“That person is full of grief, so I have to ask the question, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing that?’” she asked.
In order to find out what was behind the death shrines, Daniels-Sykes decided to simply become part of the neighborhood group and ask questions. In one case, a shrine was created in the wake of a murder-suicide: a disturbed boyfriend killed the young daughter of his girlfriend and then shot himself.
The effects on children
The shrines are a way of expressing grief, Daniels-Sykes said, but she wonders what effects they will have on children who see teddy bears tied to street poles. Something soft and cuddly and comforting suddenly has become connected to violence.
“I don’t know what this is doing to our babies,” Daniels-Sykes said. “But, if it’s touching me in such a sad way, I think our children don’t need to be constantly bombarded with all of this. And it scares me.
“You don’t see too many overt crosses (at the shrines),” she said. “But what you do see are teddy bears, kind of like Jesus hanging on the cross, hanging on the tree. But there are comforting things in there, as well, such as mylar balloons and flowers. So, Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again. I try to see the theology behind these shrines because people sit there. They party. They reflect. They cry. They want to talk.
“The unfortunate reality of it all is that these vast public spaces are transformed into sacred spaces to remember loved ones who have lost their lives on the streets, in many case, violently.”
Shawnee Daniels-Sykes said she hopes Catholic social teaching – particularly the principles of human dignity; the preferential option for the poor, vulnerable and marginalized; the constructive role of government; and solidarity – will encourage more Catholics to rise up against the violence that plagues the U.S., especially those living in African-American communities that suffer a disproportionate number of shooting deaths.
“I insist that these principles call the Catholic Church, along with its consistent ethic-of-life position, to wake up and stop the eerie silence on this grave moral issue,” Daniels-Sykes said.
The Sister Eva Regina Lecture Series is named after the late congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family, who also was a professor at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies.