Jan 10, 2012

Farewell to Juelz

It was cold, but we gathered on the property of University Lutheran Church to say farewell to a street youth on Friday, December 23. The flowers were set at the base of a big tree. We spread out tarps so people could sit on the damp ground. We welcomed everyone to this memorial and opened with a prayer that this would be a safe place for everyone and that we could grieve together the loss of Jalitza, "Juelz," Villatoro, May 11- 1991, to Dec 14, 2011. Almost everyone present knew her. It was one of the largest crowds for a street youth memorial because Juelz knew everyone. She was one of those people who moved in all sorts of circles with the ability to get along with everyone.

We listened to a song by Pennywise called “Bro Hymn.” It was spot on with the message that life is the most valuable thing you can lose. Then, outside under the open skies (our present setting), I read Psalm 150 about praising God and praising him with all sorts of instruments. My intention was that it would invite everyone to participate no matter what type of instrument they felt like playing today. We opened our first round of comments designed to share in a celebration of Juelz's life. People shared warm memories they had of Juelz. People shared happy moments, partying. People shared how she confronted them fearlessly. People shared how fond they were of Juelz. We celebrated Juezl's life.

Then we listened to a surprise song. Juelz sometimes participated in a Friday band with other street youth and social workers. She reluctantly recorded a song, and now I had the honor of playing it back to those gathered to remember Juelz. Juelz sang “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Synyrd quietly. Then I read John 11:35. And explained the importance of grieving. Many wept. Then we opened a second time of sharing for what we missed about Juelz. Friends shared that they will miss her amazing smile. Many commented on how they would miss how she seemed to always have something good to say.

Choosing the songs for this memorial was hard because Juelz had such a wide variety of friends. Different groups of people all claimed Juelz as their own, including wanting to choose iconic music from their experience with her. However, in a gathering of about 20 of her friends, everyone agreed on this particular song. It's a difficult song, a cover of “Let it Be” by the Beatles. The group was insistent that it be the version of Let it Be from Across the Universe. The song is the soundtrack for the scene where the boy is shot and the mother is told. The funeral march ensues. It's very beautiful. We played that song. Some sang along. Many sobbed uncontrollably. Then I read Hebrews 4:15-16: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." I explained that Juelz had first told me that she didn't believe in God. But she kept coming, and it was clear from her comments that she did believe. One day, she explained that she couldn't talk to God. She had lost her ability to pray, and that really disturbed her. She kept coming and kept hanging around. And it is my joy to report that Juelz found her words again. She reported in letters to many friends that she was once again able to pray to God and had renewed her relationship with God. She was so happy about that and shared the news with her friends.

I then shared additional words because it was two days before Christmas. I had struggled with how to deliver this memorial honestly and be true to the context since it was almost Christmas Eve. As I considered this, a recovering street youth sent me a message and a poem. It tied the memorial to Christmas in a most beautiful way:
"Matthew 2:9-12: After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.” 
What I take from this, today, is that to give to this child gold and frankincense, they were aware that this child was to be their king. To give this child myrrh, they were aware that their king would die. They did in that day, and we do on this day, mourn the loss of this king. We do, however, choose to celebrate his life. 
I see that we wise men and women have gathered here today
from the east,
from the west,
and from everywhere.
Today we are missing one of our wisdoms.
And I ask that we not mourn,
but Celebrate the life of Juelz."
Together, we finished the memorial by celebrated what Juelz believed... her amazing sweet spirit, her view of God, her view of life. Many there directly shared about addiction pand romised not to let Juelz's death be in vain. Her life certainly wasn't lived in vain, but her death seemed senseless to many there. Many promised to make sure it would serve as a wake-up call and warning. Many promised to work harder to help friends turn the corner of addiction. We closed in prayer that Jesus receive Juelz's soul and that there be a big celebration in heaven.

Following the service, volunteers served lasagna and a hot meal to the very cold crowd. Many kept listening to the music selections over and over. A small shrine began to be assembled around the flower. One girl left her necklace with a buffalo charm because "Juelz was a strong as a buffalo." Several left notes or drawing for Juelz. We distributed clothing, dog food, toiletries and other goodies. And because it was almost Christmas Eve, we also distributed Christmas stockings and Christmas Bags of Grace, filled with candy, hats and gloves, flashlights, fruit, and a Bags of Grace.

It may be our last memorial on that property for some time, not because I suppose that no one further will die in the coming days, but because the property is to be used as the construction office for a high rise residential unit being built next door.