PATERSON, NJ – The corner of North First and Arch streets presents a scene that evokes James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
"Behind them was the darkness, nothing but the darkness,’’ Baldwin wrote, "in and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire -- a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!"
Atop the high steps of St. Phillips Ministry, one of several local churches, the Rev. Stafford Miller sits regally on a weathered chair, ministering to the block through the sounds of Gospel music emanating from the outdoor church speakers. The signs of poverty are evident at every turn, from the man emaciated from feeding his addiction to the child whose slow smile and hard eyes are just as much a legacy as his beautiful brown skin. Street violence is part of the rhythm of life in this community.
Along the wall of an abandoned building looms an enormous mural, a testament to another tragic death in the neighborhood, this one an 18-year-old gunned down a little more than a year ago.
“It is part of the community, like the people,’’ Miller said of the mural, a project he spearheaded. “It’s part of our journey, part of our hope, and part of our past, present and future. Dreams are here. Sorrow is here. Faith is here.”
The mural consists of panels depicting a burial scene contrasted with a classroom scene and interspersed with motivational quotes. It stands in the place where a young boy was gunned down a year ago. A statue of the Virgin Mary and a small wall of painted cinder block mark the spot where Nyjavar "Nagee" Jackson breathed his last breath.
Miller obtained the funding for the mural through a grant from Peace with Justice Foundation of United Methodist Church. “The outcome is something that I’m proud of,’’ he said. “It’s something in this community that gives hope.” He points to the absence of graffiti. A woman comes by to remove the weeds. “You can see that people respect it,” Miller said.
During the past year, the painting of the mural has become part of the community’s heartbeat. Turhaun Gunthrope, a 36-year-old man who lives across the street, watched the artist at work and and helped him by removing debris. Gunthrope is one of the many people in the neighborhood who have committed themselves to “watch and make sure nobody writes on it.”
Indeed, though tags have been written in the space above the mural, the actual mural is virtually undisturbed.
For Gunthrope, the burial scene speaks to him most. “There’s been a lot of that going on around here,’’ he said. “The younger kids are growing up too fast. There’s no activities for them and nothing to do.”
The Rev. Joseph Robinson, who ministers at a small church just next to the mural, was also most moved by the burial scene. “This coffin that these young people are carrying sends a dark signal of a sad story,’’ he said. “These boxes are filled with young people, not seniors. Not that we want them inside but back in my day when you saw boxes like this you saw an old person who had lived their life, but today you see young kids who have not. They just got to high school, didn’t even finish, and they’re dying for no reason.”
“Until we give children a place to go it’s going to stay the same, if not get worse,’’ Robinson added. “Where you see one coffin, you’ll see 20.”
In fact, in June of this year, headlines in the Huffington Post read: “Chicago Homicides Outnumber U.S. Troop Killings in Afghanistan.” Like many urban areas throughout the country, Paterson has its own killing fields. Last year, more than 100 people were wounded in street shootings. The city has averaged roughly 20 homicides a year during the past decade.
Miller offers a spiritual view of the city’s violence: “In suffering and death God shows his presence of mercy, compassion and love. God motivates us to respond to the suffering of others with compassion, caring and action.”
The mural, in addition to many other outreach programs, is part of what the reverend calls, “intentional, lasting and transformative action.” He continues, “There are 350 churches in Paterson. They should be challenged to come awake and recognize the mandates that we have - not just of piety but of social holiness.”
As for Reverend Miller’s favorite panel? “Obama. I admire his leadership and courageousness. I admire him as a Black man and leader. He inspires me. When a Black man rises up we can celebrate that and he becomes a model for all of us.”