Reverend Winnie Varghese leans over a bamboo cross in the yard of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, adjusting a T-shirt that hangs off the cross along with roughly 40 others, the clothes flapping in the cold wind. “Most people walk in and figure it out right away,” she says.
Each of the t-shirts has the name, age, and story of a child younger than 12 who was killed or injured by gunfire in the United States since last Easter. The crosses went up in the front yard of the church, which sits at the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 10th Street, yesterday, Palm Sunday. They will remain in the yard for the duration of Holy Week, which lasts until Easter, this coming Sunday.
Varghese, 42, and the members of her parish made the crosses out of bamboo and zip ties last year, the first time they decided to mark Holy Week in this fashion. “We’re a very political church, but we hadn’t done anything like this,” she says. “We have this yard that is very visible.” In 2014, the T-shirts represented the number of people killed by gunfire in New York State during the previous year. “Holy Week is about death,” Varghese explains. “A body and life that wasn’t valued.”
Since taking over as head reverend at St. Mark’s Church, Varghese, who writes a blog for the Huffington Post, has attracted parishioners to the church with her political gestures. In December, the church hung a banner on its south-facing portico — it remains there now — that reads “Black Lives Matter.”
Varghese says people have noticed the shirts, coming in and out of the front yard to take pictures. She said two police officers even came by and thanked her for the gesture, which makes sense to her — after all, police are usually the first on the scene when someone’s been shot.
On Tuesday morning, Varghese plans to hang a sign on the north-facing fence that surrounds the yard, which is also a very old graveyard. (The church dates back to 1799, and some of the graves — including that of Peter Stuyvesant — date back to the 1600s.) The sign will state that more than 700 children twelve and younger were killed or injured by people with guns in the United States since last Easter.
“I’m from Texas,” Varghese says. “In my mind, as a priest, all you need is that number: 700. How can it not be that something’s gone horribly wrong? So many of them were domestic violence, so many murder-suicides.” According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in situations of domestic violence than for self-defense.
By Tuesday, Varghese hopes to have around 75 T-shirts up, with the help of her parishioners. As she adjusts the bamboo crosses, an older woman approaches her in the yard to tell her that the T-shirts are “wonderful.”
“I can’t help but notice all these kids are from states that are rah-rah guns,” the woman says. “This is very moving. Thank you very much for doing this.”
The church is not asking for donations or planning any demonstrations. Varghese explains, “It’s just public witness.”