WASHINGTON D.C. – Chris Kilcullen’s name was read at 9:41 p.m. local time. His was one of 362 names being read at the 24th Annual Candlelight Vigil, on Mother’s Day in Washington D.C.
On the site where a National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial will be built in Washington’s Judiciary Square neighborhood, tens of thousands gathered in the twilight. Officer Kilcullen’s family was there. So was an eight-person honor guard sent from the Eugene Police Department. So was Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns and Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz.
C.O.P.S. (Concerns Of Police Survivors) raises the money each year to bring grieving spouses together for this event. On this Mother’s Day, many of the honored guests are mothers, and now their children are without their father. You might ask yourself whether holding candles in a crowd on a muggy evening is the best way to celebrate Mother’s Day. I suppose many would have preferred a quiet dinner at home, alone with loved ones.
But Washington is a place where many become one. Its original purpose continues to this day. And not in an abstract way. George Washington was concerned that the Constitution was a piece of paper. It needed to be buttressed by something more permanent and more particular — a national city.
My Mother’s Day started at Progress for Christ Baptist Church, a Capitol Hill neighborhood church. The gospel music wafted out its stained glass windows across the street from my room, beckoning me.
Neighborhood churches change more slowly than neighborhoods. If you want to know what a neighborhood looked like 20 years ago, go to church and look around. Those are the people who used to live nearby. A filled sanctuary is like a human time capsule. Those people chose this neighborhood — and then this church — when their children were young.
Capitol Hill has gentrified. Its row houses are filled with young professionals, attracted to the area by its proximity to the Congressional office buildings on the east end of the National Mall. The city’s best farmers market runs seven days a week, just a few blocks away. Coffee shops dot corners that don’t need traffic lights.
The neighborhood is now mostly white, but the churches are still mostly black. Washington is an international city, but it’s also a southern city. Whether by choice or habit, people still sort themselves by race.
Rev. Dr. John D. Chaplin is telling his congregation of 60 or so what they already know. He’s telling them what everybody already knows. When a child asks “why?” it’s the mother who answers. That’s true across generations, cultures, continents, and religions. If there’s a universal law that binds individuals into societies, it’s this: “Because your mother said so.” Fathers are not always around at the moment of a child’s birth, but the mother always is. So the mother and the child always know each other’s name.
When a mother scolds her child, saying only the name is often enough. “Donnie, Donnie, Donnie ….” — arms folded, head shaking, chin tucked, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, looking down. Nothing more needed saying.
The power of the vigil that evening was in the naming of names. Statistics can be alarming, and the daily risk of 800,000 safety officers across the country is difficult to fathom. But keeping track of what’s lost must not become an abstraction, because then it’s lost twice.
The details don’t matter. Only the names.
Attorney General Eric Holder described the daily work of a police officer to the assembled crowd, employing an odd echo, “To make a more just, safe, and perfect union.” If our Constitution states our collective aspiration, and a national city proves it, we leave it to our police officers who work out the blood-and-guts specifics.
And so the flow returns. In this place, the many become one. But in moments of tragedy, the one inspires the many.
The sacrifice of an individual builds the greater good. As Linda Moon Gregory, president of C.O.P.S. said just before the candles were lit, “That’s what we do. That’s who we are.”
We pull together and resolve — to do better, try harder, carry on — to honor the one we lost. Chris Kilcullen.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.