“We will not forget our loved ones.”
The room was hushed, but following this statement by Union University professor Dr. Theresa Blakley, a steady applause rippled throughout the room along with resounding echoes affirming, “That’s right.”
On Oct. 2, 2017, families from across West Tennessee gathered together for the tenth annual Remember Me Commemorative Event for Families of Homicide Loss at Union University’s Carl Grant Event Center to honor loved ones lost to the awful evil that is homicide.
The warm aroma of spaghetti dinner lingered in the air as the gentle roar of warm conversation filled every square inch of the room. Families either donned buttons with the faces of their loved ones lost or matching shirts to signify a brave unity and celebration of life. The room was filled with tables, where families gathered around and talked with one another as they ate dinner together. City leaders, Union social work students and law enforcement and criminal justice employees also attended.
Union University President Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver offered a prayer over everyone in the room before the start of the night. There was an unspoken empathy in the room—everyone loved and gave grace freely because they had all been through the same pain.
“We deeply appreciate your courage,” Blakley said. “As homicide-loss survivors, everybody’s journey is different, but as you look around the room tonight, you must know that you are never alone in this valley.”
Blakley and Dr. Nita Mehr, who oversaw the event, are social work professors at Union as well as survivors of homicide-loss. Blakley lost her first husband in December 1999 during an invasion at their Miami home. They were the first family attacked in a line of invasions within their neighborhood, and the attack left her husband dead and his parents, who were visiting for Christmas, severely wounded. The attacker took his own life in the middle of a standoff with the police after killing several more. Blakley shared that while the story of the attacker was over, the story of her family was far from over because of the hope of Christ.
According to Blakley, there is no better way to honor their loved ones than by performing strategic acts of kindness for unsuspecting recipients. She even went as far as to say that being so strategically kind is like kicking evil in the teeth. Kelly Mitchell came to the stage to speak to this idea of paying it forward in honor of lost loved ones.
Mitchell stood bravely on stage in a shirt with a picture and the caption that read, “When I close my eyes, I see your face. Forever loved and missed.” Mitchell is a survivor of homicide-loss of her husband, who was shot and killed by robbers in 2009. She asserted that this Remember Me Commemorative Walk was especially pointed in light of the tragedy that had taken place in Las Vegas less than 24 hours before. A 2015 Union University graduate, Sonny Melton, was one of the victims killed in the attack in Las Vegas. The audience responded to this announcement with gentle groans and sighs that signified they related to the pain all too perfectly.
Mitchell shared of the horrendous pain her family felt the week following her husband’s death, as they waited on autopsy results and made arrangements for organ donation. This pain seemed to haunt the family during this same week of each year to follow.
“It was so bad, we had to make it good,” Mitchell said.
And so they set out to be purposeful in sharing the impactful love of her husband left in his great legacy. Mitchell shared that their family took what had become a week of immense pain and recreated it to be a week to pay it forward. The acts of kindness include taping dollar bills to vending machines in hospitals with a note of encouragement, leaving small American flags on the windshields of military marked vehicles in parking lots, making meals for elderly widows and taking treats to local fire stations and police departments.
Scott Myatt gently picked his guitar and captivated the audience with songs of hope as he played songs sporadically throughout the night. He presented each lyric with a voice so soft, inviting and soothing.
“Shower the people you love with love,” Myatt sang.
The room sat in solace as some closed their eyes in prayerful meditation during the songs while others swayed gently and softly sang along with Myatt.
Following the dinner was the commemorative walk, during which all attendants walked a path outside lit by candles held by Union University students. “Amazing Grace” rang piercingly yet peacefully from the bells of the bell tower. The homicide-loss survivors strode with much reverence and remembrance. As they walked along the warmly lit sidewalks, many of the survivors stopped to thank the students holding candles. Tears filled the eyes of both the students holding candles and the survivors walking. A significant unity was created in this stilling moment as love was not withheld even slightly. The evident joy amid pain and the tears that fell in remembrance of the pain was a beautiful but chilling combination that painted a magnificent picture of true hope among devastation.
Each survivor received a white balloon at the end of the walk, which they held firmly until instructed to do otherwise. As the survivors simultaneously released their balloons, they said the name of their lost loved ones and watched in solidarity as the balloons climbed higher and higher.
As the balloons floated ever so winsomely into the night sky, time seemed to stand still. The hope-filled statement given at dinner by Blakley seemed to remain suspended in the air even an hour later: “Our sorrow is not wasted. I refuse to be a trophy of evil when God has made us victors in him. He is surely making a garden of goodness from the swamp of our grief.”