Street Prayer for the Murdered

Today we will once again process from our small chapel into the streets after Mass. We will again pray just two blocks from the sacred sanctuary to end the violence on our urban streets. John was murdered last Saturday evening on the corner of Davis and Sixth. I have not kept adequate records over the years, but I think John’s murder is the ninth time we have prayed as a community that violence be washed from the sidewalks and hatred be swept into the gutters for good.

We will pray in the heat of summer near midday for the people locked in violence and addictions in the dark of night. These holiday weekends bring even more terror than usual. People from the suburbs come to our neighborhood with time and money. People on social security and disability just received their monthly checks this weekend. Loss of jobs, hopelessness has compelled many to give up on sobriety. These are the issues for our continuing procession to the streets after our procession to the altar for communion.

Today also marks the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death. My mother, Rosemary would have been 90 years old this week on July 8. I am reminded today as well about an event that happened at the gravesite on the day of her burial.

After the closing prayers at her grave, a woman in a bright red dress ran up to me. She held my hand close to her breast. She told me she was a seer. She whispered to me that she felt my mother’s passing and that I did not need to know her name. She then proceeded to tell me that my mother wanted me to persevere in my priesthood. The older, kind woman still holding my hand also told me that my mother loved the white flowers we all had for her, but that she preferred pink. She then left without another word.

As I gazed down to the casket on the bright July morning, I saw the mound of white flowers from all the arrangements from relatives and friends. My only thought was that my mother’s favorite color was pink.

I cannot give up on my priesthood amid the violence, addictions and hatred on our streets even though I have no solid answers for any of the issues we face. My mother’s request is not just for me. Her request is for all of us not to give up on the faith that calls us from the safety of the sanctuary into the tragic events that claim our neighborhood. I will process with our community from the dimly lit chapel today mindful of my mother’s request to keep praying for all who suffer and for all who have died.

Rosemary, pray for us.

John, pray for us.

Street Prayer for the Murdered – Litany

Revised Pentecost 2009

Response: SAVE US O GOD

From the brutality of murder and violence…..
From the hardship of poverty and loss…..
From the addiction of drugs and alcohol….

From the fear of isolation and hardship….
From the evil of war and hatred……….
From the corruption of sin and darkness….

From the terror of gunshots and stabbings…
From the suffering of illness and disease…..
From the coldness of loneliness and self-pity…

From the bitterness of homelessness and empty pockets…
From the need of prostitution and pornography….
From the snare of mental illness and all discrimination..

From the desperation of pride and jealousy….
From the silence of apathy and neglect….
From the wounds of sexual molestation and abuse…

From the deserts of ignorance and suffering…
From the arrogance of racism and greed…
From the burden of grief and despair…

From the torture of broken promises and empty commitments…
From the doubt of selfishness and insecurities…..
From the web of egoism and self-centeredness….
From the outrage of revenge and the death penalty…

From the seduction of materialism and gossip…
From the sin of gluttony and avarice……
From the cloud of sexism and ageism ….
From the trap of cynicism and lack of forgiveness….

And from all evil….
And from all evil….
And from all evil……

Jesus of the Streets, Remember Me

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Fall 2007
– PDF version –

Our parish community prays the taize chant “Jesus, Remember Me” as an antidote to loneliness and fear in our neighborhood. In the past five years, two young men were murdered in separate incidents at the entrance of our church. The forces of violence and isolation killed Wallace and Daniel, and the two crimes may never be solved. ‘As a faith community on this corner of Sixth and Burnside in Portland, Oregon, the violence that surrounds us compels us to take our voices from the safety of the sanctuary into the chaos and uncertainty of our streets.

Two weeks after Daniel’s murder, I took the risk of asking Daniel’s family and our parish community to pray together on the street at 3:00 A.M., the exact time of his murder. I woke up myself to the reality of the neighborhood and the call for the parish to stand amidst the violence. I wrote a prayer service and composed a sung litany for the occasion, but it was the song “Jesus, Remember Me” that I relied on to move the mourners from our warm lobby into the cold and unforgiving street that night.

We gathered in our small lobby and were led outside under the banner of a processional cross. Slowly our voices merged into the simple chant of “Jesus, Remember Me,” and I could feel our souls clinging to the music and to the message. We did not want Daniel to be forgotten, and we did not want death to win out. The song flooded our hearts and began to wash away our fear on the bloodstained streets.

Our community of the Downtown Chapel of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish now responds to murder beyond our red doors. When a homicide occurs within our neighborhood, we carry our faith and our song deeper into our fearful community. After celebrating Sunday Eucharist, we process out of the chapel and into the streets singing “Jesus, Remember Me.” We stand firmly on the place of death and pray for peace. Our voices merge into support and encouragement so the families and neighborhood can move beyond hatred. Our singing bears witness to our own community that power comes from faith even though we live in the midst of mental illness and homelessness. For just a few minutes our collective praise of God erases the loneliness that makes a home in our addictions and poverty.

“Jesus, Remember Me,” from the French monastery of Taize, especially voices the ache of the human condition within the love and passion of God. Jacques Berthier’s melodic chant opens every community to the longing of the repentant thief from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:39–43). The combination of text and musical accessibility makes this song one of the most profound liturgical and ritual pieces of music available in any pastoral setting.

The healing balm of “Jesus, Remember Me” continues to guide my human and sacramental response to people in need. I bear this song in my heart well after the choir rehearsals are over, the altar candles are snuffed out, and the church doors locked. This mystical chant carries my priestly ministry into the darkness where fear, loneliness, and despair overwhelm people. Berthier’s music companions me when I am helpless in the center of desperate moments and worried that words will not satisfy in circumstances of chaos and violence.

I carried this mantra again one rainy night from the warmth of my bedroom to the deathbed of a newborn baby. Walking into the small hospital quarters, I was confronted with nurses, aides, and doctors huddled around the premature infant. Sounds of life-sustaining machines filled the silence of the room. The exhausted mother sat nearby, suffocating in her grief. She desperately wanted someone from the church to be present for the decision to turn off the respirators, and to end the life of ner firstborn boy. I quietly, fearfully, leaned against the doorway, waiting to speak with her.

The doctors decided to turn off the respirator and let the infant breathe on his own power. The hospital staff and the baby’s mother all looked to me for assurance and approval. I felt so inadequate, so naked, and so unable to speak any words of consolation. So, I sang, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The nurses and their aides joined in praying with soft voices of support. The baby’s breathing lasted just a few minutes.

The mother carried her dead child to an oversized rocking chair in a darkened corner of the room. She asked me if I would sit with her for a while. I squeezed into the chair and put my arm over her shoulders as she held the body. We rocked and sang. We rocked away the cold night and sang the song we could hold on to, the only prayer that could comfort us. We rocked on the margins of this world and the Kingdom.

My pastoral experience teaches me that we are all afraid. Fear crushes us when the fragility of our existence takes over our daily lives. This is simply being human. However, a faithful and pastoral response to life cannot be based on denial, sugarcoating painful circumstances or avoiding the truth. Music brings us closer to the release of fear, to the understanding that Jesus’ passion-death-and-resurrection is also for our own lives as well. Ritual song does not take suffering away, but it bonds us in faith with those in sorrow and those who cling to the new life only Christ can bring.

Berthier’s music gets to the heart of faith. This simple chant, sung together in congregations, or anywhere two or three are gathered, demonstrates our earthly desire for God’s assistance and remembrance. The hypnotic melody helps us rest in the assurance of Christ’s passion to bring everyone into the love and forgiveness of the Kingdom. His music helps us to leave our self-sufficiency and cling to God.

Singing “Jesus, Remember Me” along the margins of the church and culture brings me to a deeper faith. Carrying this gift of song into people’s suffering helps me realize that worship is built upon people who need God through daily human turmoil and struggles, Opening people up in song when they are most closed down in sorrow invigorates my faith when I rerum to the worshiping assembly. This chant goes far to unite individual suffering to the prayer of the entire congregation.

Musicians and pastoral leaders can only witness to faith if we believe what we are singing. Singing along the margins of life means we also leave behind comfortable aspects of our ministry and images of ourselves. Singing among those who suffer the most means we leave behind the mandatory rehearsals, our performance egos, and professional liturgical correctness. Believing what we sing is a gift of faith.

We are called to bring this gift of faith into the lives of wounded veterans and the uncertainty of their families. We carry this faith with us as we listen to people crying out in despair over losing homes and security in floods and storms. We offer the song of faith to those suffering from debilitating depression and the shunning of those with mental illness. We sing in unity when people are torn apart by job loss, the end of a marriage, or the death of a parent. It is into all these situations we bring a song of presence, remembrance, and hope.

I sing in the midst of sorrow so I will nor forget people. Music keeps my memory alive and my life prayerful. I will never forget the widow’s grieving, the mentally ill parent, or the child with cancer. I still pray for the mother of a son dying of AIDS who taught me to overcome my fear of touching her son. My memory prays for the family walking to the gravesite on a cold windy day to bury their grandfather. I cannot forget the ache of those who cry out for help and assurance.

I also learn from all these fragile circumstances that people cannot be manipulated or controlled. Reaching out beyond our safe sanctuaries does not guarantee that tragic situations will change or that people will be comforted. I cannot bring with me pat answers, stale rubric, or a fixed pattern of responding to people’s needs. I still learn about my temptation to judge people and my desire to control conversations when I am afraid and lonely.

Not everyone is ready to move out of fear. When life is raw and hurting, some people cannot immediately receive the invitation for God’s remembrance and love. Fear is an incredible beast to tame even with music and prayer. I learned this again one night when I responded to a phone call requesting a priest for a twelve-year-old boy dying in an emergency room.

I proceeded slowly into the corner of the hospital room where the boy was hooked up to multiple monitors. The clicks, sighs, and rings of the life-giving equipment overwhelmed me. I was prepared with the sacramental oils in hand, but I was not ready for the anguish of the boy’s mom. The loudest sound in the room was her voice as she leaned over her son and screamed into his face. “Don’t you die!” she yelled. “If you die I will be so angry!” she shouted above all the screeching monitors. As she yelled I noticed the graphs and lights on all of the machines attached to the boy’s body popping up and down. The more she screamed at him, the louder the buzzers and alarms sounded around the boy’s bed.

I watched the boy’s body become rigid and resistant. The sound of her yelling made me nervous and anxious about how to respond to both of them. She finally invited me close to her son’s bed. I approached him from the opposite side where the mother sat on the bed. I could hardly speak. His fear filled me with tears. I slowly began to sing, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” When the boy heard my voice, he started to relax. His face lost its frown and his shoulders let loose. All the graphs and lights on the monitors began to even out.

The mother’s face became red and tight. Her mothering instincts became another kind of monitor. She stared at the machines and became unraveled. She verbally threw me out of the room and told me never to come back. I still pray for her years later because recovering from a child’s death is in God’s hands alone.

“Jesus Remember Me” continues to echo throughout my sacramental ministry, in my memory of those who felt forgotten by illness, aging, or fear. I have sung this refrain in every possible ministry setting. Many times it connects people’s longing to God’s love, and sometimes people are not yet ready to receive that invitation. No matter how people respond I am always changed by people’s courage to face life as it is. I am always brought to profound prayer even when pain divides people from their loved ones. Even when people cannot relate to this song at the time, I always come back to our parish assembly confident that the words of the man who hung next to Jesus still spoke of hope and consolation.

Leaving the safe confines of our communities of worship and taking prayer and music into daily life is never easy. Ourcommon worship depends, however, on people feeling connected to faith and the support of the church in times of profound fear and uncertainty. This is where real music ministry opens us all to reliance on God and the love of people who remember others in good times and in bad. The sung Scripture verse from Taize, “Jesus Remember Me,” helps us all pray through our sorrow and leads us to rely on and praise God. No matter how far into the inconsolable suffering of people this chant may take us, Jesus will no doubt remember us all.

Reclaiming a corner from brutality and death

by Eric Mortenson,
The Oregonian – November 17, 2003 –

His voice finds space between the rattle of a passing transient’s shopping cart and the hoots of young men leaning out of car windows. “From the brutality of murder and violence,” Fr. Raab sings in the early morning darkness, launching a litany of invocation and response. Thirty-two mourners who have gathered for a prayer service at the corner of Northwest Sixth Avenue and Burnside Street in Portland close in, straining to hear. Bundled in coats against the 3 a.m. cold and holding candles against the darkness, they sing the response: “Save us, O God.” “From the hardships of poverty and loss,” the priest. “Save us, O God,” the group replies. Perhaps 20 are family or friends of Daniel Adesan, an 18-year-old North Portland man shot to death on this spot at 3:30 a.m. two weeks before. The priest continues the litany he’s written for the occasion. “From the addiction of drugs and alcohol,” he sings, his voice gaining power. “From the fear of isolation and hardship.” “Save us, O God,” comes the response each time.

Fr. Ron Raab has ministered among AIDS patients for 20 years. But the violence that stalks Northwest Sixth and Burnside is something new to him. Portland police say the corner is a hot spot for drug sales. Adesan’s killing on October 25th was the second there in 13 months; another man, Wallace Russ, was stabbed to death in a fight on September 12, 2002. Both men met death 20 steps from the doors of the Downtown Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul, where Raab serves. Both died while the priest slept. Going for his morning walk shortly after Russ was attacked, the priest unknowingly stepped in the man’s blood. Raab says he can’t sleep anymore. It’s time to awake. “I feel we need to do something,” he said before the prayer service. “As a Christian community on this corner, we have to make a stand for peace and forgiveness, and call that corner back to the reality of God.” He invited Adesan’s family and wrote the litany, planning the prayer service for the same hour Adesan died. “From the corruption of sin and darkness,” he sings. “Save us, O God.” “From the terror of gunshots and stabbings.” “Save us, O God.”

Thousands probably drive by the downtown chapel of St. Vincent de Paul every day without realizing it’s a church. They have to crane their necks to see the statue of Christ the King looming 20 feet above the sidewalk, arms outstretched. When Raab came to Portland, somebody told him that addicts who want to buy drugs know to stand in front of the building’s blue doors. “That’s our parish,” the priest says. “You see it every morning, gangs of men hanging out in the neighborhood. Just walk out the door and there they are.” Each morning, the church hosts a two-hour hospitality session. The lobby fills up with 40 homeless men and women who come in for a change of clothes and a cup of coffee. They sit on metal folding chairs, nodding to street acquaintances and talking quietly. One by one, volunteers take them aside and help them make a phone call or locate a relative, find a support group, get some medication. On Friday evenings, volunteers serve soup and sandwiches on the street. Once a month, they hand out food bags to neighbors. The daily Mass attracts a mix of white-haired women who arrive alone and a sprinkling of homeless people, addicts and the mentally ill. At one Monday Mass, a heavyset man who has difficulty doing the simplest things asked worshippers to pray for him especially hard, Raab says, because the following day was his shower day and he wasn’t sure he could get the cap off the shampoo bottle. “I’m 48 and I’ve been trying to approach God with that kind of honesty and integrity all my life,” Raab says. “This is where the church needs to be. I think there is great grace and beauty in working with people on the edge, on the margins. They have such an awareness and a need for God.”

The sharp, rapid pops on October 25th pulled the priest from a deep sleep. He stirred in his bed and began counting. He woke again 15 or 20 minutes later, realizing he hadn’t been dreaming. Pulling the window curtains aside, he saw the strobe of an ambulance. Raab made his way downstairs, opened one of the lobby doors and found yellow crime-scene tape stretched in front of the church. He told an officer that he’d heard five shots. “Well, actually, they shot him nine times,” Raab says the cop replied. “When I went downstairs, I realized I’d slept through the first four shots, but really I’ve been sleeping through the whole thing,” the priest says quietly. “It was a metaphor for our inability to be out there and claim our lives as Christians. All of us here struggle with the drug scene and the prostitution scene. The only thing to do is let them know we stand for something different.” He began planning the prayer service for Daniel Adesan. At first, Raab expected three or four people might attend, but he underestimated the appeal of the service. But the street does not give way so easily. A nightclub down the block is closing as the service begins, and squabbling young women in mini-skirts pile outside to argue noisily about who gets to ride in a stretch limo that idles nearby. Those left out scream profanities. Raab leads the group through prayers. “We come to claim not only our street but our hearts as well, in the promise of peace.” He sings his way through the litany, asking for deliverance from the “bitterness of homelessness and empty pockets,” from the “snare of mental illness and all discrimination,” and from the “deserts of ignorance and suffering.” He finishes with an echoing call. “And from all evil, from all evil, from all evil,” he sings. The responses trail into the night. “Save us, O God.”