Seven-year-old Kester Browne and his mom, 31-year-old Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, were both shot in the head last Thursday.
"This makes no sense," Reverend Ronald C. Williams told the 200 or so people at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church attending the funeral on Saturday morning. His sermon circled around how "crazy" the world is, its madness, and how without the Lord, we'd really all be "stark-raving mad," including the reverend himself, he was not too afraid to admit. Around 30 people, the overflow, watched the service on a TV screen in the church's basement, which didn't mitigate their emotions upon viewing open caskets of a mother and her son dead, next to each other.
Rev. Williams quoted from Ecclesiastes, an extended dose of real talk from the Old Testament: "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless."
There's a citywide compulsion to turn Kester Browne into a symbol. Of how out of control violence in Baltimore is and how cruel and cowardly criminals are, and those things are probably true. This funeral then turns into the tipping point for May, a deadly month, due to an alleged police slowdown, opportunistic criminals, a much-ballyhooed myth that there are “enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it high for a year,” and a mayor who seems disinterested in taking this violence seriously. You get the sense that the people in charge think it'll sort itself out, though that means second-graders are just part of the collateral. Maybe they hadn't thought that part through.
Before the service, in front of the church, life went on around grieving and occasionally wailing family and friends. It was a regular Saturday morning on South Loudon Avenue. A couple men sat on their porch and talked, another man blathered on his cellphone. Residents walked, waddled, and strutted down the street, depending on their 9:30 a.m. mood. Some were curious and glanced over, others averted their eyes out of respect or possibly because it was too much to handle.
"It doesn't come into reality yet . . ." a man outside the church said, confiding in his friends, stopping and stumbling on every word. A little Incredible Hulk toy sat in the grass, probably dropped by one of the many children in attendance. Somehow that felt like too much. Let's hope the kid who dropped that toy got it back. And let's hope everyone there for the Browne funeral found something they need to get through this.
But the Browne funeral is not the end of anything. The family is burdened with grief and bills for burying two family members. As for the violence, on the same day, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old were shot in East Baltimore.
Kester Browne, who as so many have pointed out was learning Chinese at Baltimore International Academy, had, according to his obituary read at the funeral, been handpicked to go to China this summer, another detail that makes this murder even crueler. He was "fluent in Mandarin," school founder Madame Kona-Facia Nepay told me. She knew Kester. She's not someone who read about him and projected. We're always finding ways to value certain bodies over other bodies—maybe just because there's only so much care we can give, so we pick and choose which dead people to project things onto. There is a sense that Kester was somehow very special, which he was—he seemed primed to become a diplomat or something—but we're all special once we get to know each other.
Baltimore International Academy Principal John Enkiri spoke at the funeral. He mentioned playfully pulling on Kester's braids and slapping him high-five in the morning—his office was near Kester's classroom. It's an image that's much more vivid because there right in front of us, was Kester's body, embalmed, his braids tight but not too tight. As the church's choir sang, Jennifer-Jeffrey Browne's brother, Kevin Wilder, a deacon at Pleasant Grove, rocked and grooved to the music which was doing what music does—it takes you out of things temporarily and puts you in another place. He was feeling it. It seemed like all he had in that moment. His leg shook the whole time.
Maybe you heard about Kevin Wilder last month. He prevented rioters from busting windows at Fulton Baptist Church near North and Penn on that Monday night. He saw it about to happen and got the rioters to move on. The Fulton Baptist Church donated money to the Browne's funeral as a result. So did Kester's school, $500, via the GoFundMe Jennifer-Jeffrey Browne's sister created, which raised $2,700 so far.
Funerals are expensive, Wilder told me the day before, an hour before the viewing at the Wylie Funeral Home on Mount, near the Western District Police Station. And funerals cost even more when it's "a double situation," Wilder added, trying to find some way to delicately acknowledge the situation. "We never think we need insurance on young people."
Wilder said it costs around $7,000 each in insurance to do "a proper burial." As a deacon at Pleasant Grove, he says he's involved in four or five funerals each month, so his "mind went to planning the funeral" almost immediately. He muttered something about not wanting papier-mâché caskets.
"Baltimore Police been a big help," Wilder said. They "directed [the family] to different funds" specifically for victims of crime. Ideally, the fund will reimburse the family for elements of the funeral in six to eight weeks. The family will see if it all works out. For now, "you got to give these people a check."
At one point during the service, Rev. Williams curiously quoted filmmaker Jane Campion, who had lost her first child after just 12 days. Rev. Williams was subtly political and existentially Christian. All of us will, at one point, no matter how smart we are, be confronted with something we don't understand and can't understand. This is one of those points. For this murder and all of these murders, you can't blame the police, you can't blame "those they call thugs," you've just got to pray, he says.
Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne and Kester Browne were cremated.
A vigil is planned for Tuesday at the Baltimore International Academy.