Photo: Andrew Goff

On the 15th of most months for the past five years, a vigil has been held on the Arcata Plaza or at Arcata City Hall. We bring flowers, wear red, light candles, hold signs, and shout “Justice for Josiah!” We stand in silence with our heads bowed in disbelief at our failed justice system. We listen to prayers prayed and a mother’s heart breaking, voice cracking, tears falling, rage and grief lining everything. 

Five years is a long time for a loving mother to wait in her grief. Five years of sleepless nights, restless dreams, imploring people to not forget her son, meeting with attorneys, sending letters and emails and voicemails and meeting with our elected officials and law enforcement, organizing coat drives, food drives, backpack drives for Humboldt’s needy, driving 13 hours from L.A. to Humboldt most months, praying with those who suffer and listening to those in pain. 

Five years of showing up to a town where her son thrived as a student at Humboldt State and a town where her son’s life was violently stolen from him. 

Five years without justice.

After many young people in his care were killed from gang violence, Father Gregory Boyle once wrote, “You don’t keep vigil—it keeps you.” 

Those of you who have lost your “beloved person,” where death came too quickly, abruptly, unexpectedly—a life stolen—you don’t hold monthly vigils to remember. You carry the vigil with you into every moment of your life. You hold vigil in your body, the hollow pain of loss embeds deep within you where this cavernous void becomes a constant reminder of who is no longer there. Every experience, every life-changing moment, every trip or vacation or holiday or meal around the table is a vigil—a perpetual sign of the life stolen and the emptiness you feel without their presence with you. 

You don’t keep vigil—it keeps you. 

I never knew David Josiah Lawson personally, but I know his mother, Charmaine, and I’ve felt a sliver of the pain she carries coursing through her and into me. I’ve held her hand in prayer, vice gripped with generations of Black grieving mothers surrounding her, wailing and raging over their childrens’ lives stolen. My hands and body, a tripod to keep her up.

When a Black man calls out from dying breath or from fear of being pulled over or from bleeding at a house party, “Mama!”, are not all mamas called on? Do we not all hear their cry echoing throughout the ages if we listen close enough? I think of Jesus Christ on the cross crying out for his Mama and making sure she would be held through the void that would come from his death—that she would be cared for in the pit of her grief and in her rage and anger at injustice. 

While I believe there’s victory over death through Christ’s death, everyday still hurts. When the weighty death of your beloved’s unjust killing stands on your chest, where you can no longer get full breaths in, the pain can overshadow any victory. Because no matter the victory of Christ, and no matter how many times Christians say “Oh death, where is your sting?”, death fucking stings. The paradox we live in as a People of Hope includes the lingering sting of death until death comes for each of us and the joy of what’s-to-come is revealed. 

You don’t keep vigil. Vigil keeps you and is the constant reminder of how much death still stings. 

So what do you do in the meantime? How do you continue forth within this sting? 

“God protects me from nothing but sustains me through everything,” Father Boyle wrote in Tattoos on the Heart. In the midst of working to undo a sometimes unjust and oppressive system bent on control and greed, we find that we might not be protected but we are sustained. You can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even when the sting of death feels impossible, because you are not walking it alone. Christ walked that valley before you and walks it with you even now. 

Humboldt friends, will you join us this Friday at the Humboldt County Courthouse at 4 p.m.? Will you gather with us as we lift our voices with Charmaine’s and keep vigil? Justice delayed does not have to mean justice denied and your voice is needed as we seek justice together.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people
so that you may work for
justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, hunger, and war
so that you may reach out your hand
to comfort them and
turn their pain into joy.

May God bless you with foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done,
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and the poor.

-A Franciscan Blessing

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Bethany Cseh is a pastor at Arcata United Methodist Church and Catalyst Church. She blogs frequently on her website, With Bethany.