OUR BODIES AND the land are one. Move the earth with your body, dance on it, farm in it, play with it; our final return to it is sacred. The soil is made of clay, like you and me—hydrocarbon molecules, layers of geological and muscular formations, alive. The soil, mountains, and valleys are layered with time like our layered muscle tissue. We dance on the earth in the face of death, for the healing of ourselves and the healing of the land, connected as farmers, dancers, painters, musicians, and lovers of the goodness of the good green earth moving through lament. Our bodies and the earth are one and their healing and grieving are interconnected.
January 2011, around the corner from my house, Anjaneah Williams was murdered, across the street from Sacred Heart Church, pierced in the side, at 2 p.m., walking out from a sandwich shop. It was a Thursday. She died six hours later at Cooper Hospital in the arms of her mother, before the children who deeply loved her. One of the gunman’s stray bullets shot across the street through the stained glass at Sacred Heart. Anjaneah’s death reverberated in the air, an exploding, echoing canyon; a screaming mother in a vacuum, unheard and deafening. Her murder was one of 40 in the neighborhood in the near half-century since the shipyard closed. Forty people on the sidewalks, on the lots where houses once stood, in a neighborhood with 28 known environmentally contaminated sites.
THE FAITHFUL of Sacred Heart Church in Camden are taught to dance in the face of death during Carnival. This Carnival Sunday Jorge was introduced to the parish at morning Mass. Jorge is 10 years old, with huge beautiful dimples. In June 2011, eight months before we met, Jorge was walking to his home in East Camden to change from his school clothes. He was shot in the head and lost his eyesight when a bullet, intended for someone else, severed his optic nerve. Now Jorge and his family live in my neighborhood with a backyard that connects to the greenhouse where I work. He has his own garden gate at the end of the yard, and he works with us as a Junior Farmer. He is really happy to ride the stationary bicycle in the greenhouse to pump the water for the plants. Jorge’s life is beautiful and full of loving friends, but I find myself part of Jorge’s suffering. He wants to see again, and is sometimes overwhelmed with the terrible meaninglessness of violence. I haven’t wrapped myself around the suffering, beauty, and meaning yet—perhaps there is no meaning—but I know that I have been deeply moved and healed by this beautiful blind boy.
Carnival Sunday, a poet named Rocky dances all the aisles of Sacred Heart, puppet in hand, dances in the face of the approaching season. Mardi Gras and fauschnuts, we dance in the face of death. I describe the scene to my new friend Jorge, who keeps asking more questions. I ask him what types of fruits and vegetables he likes to eat.
“Wonderful. Jorge, together we can grow all different types of broccoli. You can water them every morning, and you can feel the different parts of the plant—stem, stalk, and broccoli) sprouts.”
“Oh, yeah, and then I’ll eat them.”
“We’ll fill your yard with the most wonderfully smelling flowers, and special stepping stones to your bench, and a pathway throughout the garden.”
He asks me if I wanted to feel something.
He takes my hand and brings it up to his bullet scar. “This is where I was shot.”
He is so open and wanting to tell his story. I ask if I could show him something, and take his hand up to my head.
“This is my nose.”
He asks about all of the people around us, the church ladies grabbing his face and kissing him. I touch my hand to the area on his forehead between his two eyes.
“This is your third eye, Jorge. It tells you what is around you and when things are coming, magic like butterflies and flowers in the garden.” He tells me about his parakeets and how he takes care of them, how he loves birds, and we talk about the chickens in the garden. More church lady kisses, and the young children wave to him. He asks about the poet ballet dancing with the puppets in the aisle; he wants to hear the details, of this, our dance in the face of death. The journey into Lent, the death and resurrection, never meant as much to me until I shared it with him. I found a new voice telling the story to Jorge.
We dance and we farm, stay connected in death’s deepness, and we find our way toward beauty amidst the violence. This space where the children play, kites are flown, and orchards grown, this is the space we call home.
Our whispering stops and we listen to the priest, Father Michael, the liturgy, the cantor. Singing together, our voices rise beyond and within the words we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace.”
Father Michael’s best friend died this year, Joseph A. Balzano, a maritime man, director of the South Jersey Port Corporation’s international waterways. A man measuring in tonnage; with his wherewithal, his kindness, and his front-end loader, he moved tons of beauty into the neighborhood: statue, fountain, boulder. He donated and leveled the land where the greenhouse and gardens now stand. Joe died this year; we are grieving him, and we remember the many times he was a godfather to the neighborhood. Father Michael deeply grieves the loss of his best friend. He really misses Joe. I asked him how he was feeling. He told the story, “In Ireland, when you lose one of your own, you meet with the others in the field with your shovel, to do the digging. We didn’t do this for Joe, we didn’t dig his hole, and I don’t know how to grieve him.”
The act of digging the burial hole is sacred, is part of the mystery of mourning. Grieving has a physical side; what is done to the earth is also done to you, moving through the layers of pain.
WE BROKE three pickaxes digging the holes to plant the fruit trees at the edge of the neighborhood near the river. At this place the earth groans where a murdered woman’s body fell. Dawn McCarey was murdered here, her body thrown on this hard and frozen land Dec. 23, 1997. On this land near the Delaware River, we walk the Via Crucis to remember Christ falling, over and over again on his way to death. Our orchard, Finca de Ancona, is one of the Stations of the Cross, one of 14 sites here in Waterfront South where people have been murdered: shot, strangled, beaten, stabbed. I never knew Dawn McCarey, somebody’s daughter, strangled and dumped, found dead in the back alley between industries and families, thrown like weeds not going to seed, land and body unwanted, waiting.
We dug and we dug; we broke three pickaxes digging and caring deeply, loving the goodness of body in earth. The soil anointed with air, sunlight, and water into fruit and wildflowers. This is our orchard; this is our promise of the fruit trees in the city beside the river, healing the nations, growing hazelnuts, apples, peaches, pears, and cherries. We care for this place, make it more beautiful, and continue to dig our holes. We remember; the earth is part of our Body. May eternal rest be granted unto us and perpetual light shine dancing on.
Andrea Ferich, founder of Eve’s Garden in Camden, N.J., is executive director of the Penns Valley Conservation Association. This excerpt is from the anthology Bury the Dead: Stories of Death and Dying, Resistance and Discipleship, edited by Laurel Dykstra. Used with permission by Cascade Books.