On the corner of 13th Street and Erie Avenue, neighbors can’t help but glance up at the mural being created in their North Philadelphia neighborhood. Contrasting shades of blue, red and purple engulf the 38-foot wall.
Twenty-two doves, some yellow, some white, fly in clouds that hang above a young black man dressed in a tuxedo, an empty wheelchair and a woman deep in thought. Three men are in the process of completing a message in the top right corner. It reads, “Put down the weight of hate and envy and blame and solitude and wishing that my circumstances could be different.” These words mean a great deal to a city grappling with a high homicide rate.
“I want people to really think of what it means to forgive,” head muralist Eric Okdeh said. “And I want them to reflect on what it takes to find it within yourself to forgive.” The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program is constructing the mural known as The Forgiveness Project. The project is a tribute to Kevin Johnson. Johnson, 22, was shot and paralyzed on the streets of Southwest Philadelphia in 2003 as he waited for a trolley over what was presumed to be a 76ers jersey. In the wake of the shooting, Johnson dedicated his time to informing Philadelphia youths about the harsh realities of gun violence.
Eventually, he forgave the boys responsible for the shooting. Johnson’s mother, Janice Jackson-Burke, said this is how he began to heal. Over time, the two forged a relationship with Michael Whittington, the individual who supplied the gun to the shooter. On different occasions, Johnson and Whittington spent afternoons playing video games together. Last November, Johnson died of complications related to his paralysis.
“Things wouldn’t be exactly great, but they would be greater if everyone was more forgiving because it helps to heal,” said Jackson-Burke, the woman featured in the mural. “It took me much longer to forgive those boys than [it took] Kevin. Seeing Kevin forgive helped me just let it go and forgive.”
The roughly 2,800 murals in the city all relay different messages to the community. This is the first to address that idea of forgiveness and examine how it relates to healing. Currently, the mural is in the latter stages of construction and is set for completion in mid-October. Since October is Mural Arts Month in Philadelphia, The Forgiveness Project will have an on-site dedication ceremony Oct. 16. “Murals are just a small aspect of what our goal is in the community,” MAP director Jane Golden said. “If we can just spark dialogue amongst those in the community and take time to meet, speak with one another, that’s how change begins.”
This is what the Forgiveness Project hopes to do for the Erie neighborhood. For the past few weeks, Okdeh and his staff of three muralists have held Wednesday community nights, during which anyone in the neighborhood can come out and paint parts of The Forgiveness Project.
“Kevin was a role model for us all to look up to,” said Golden, who knew him personally. “His courage and actions speak volumes and this mural is an opportunity for change.” The mural has become a perfect fit for the blighted Erie neighborhood, which lacks public art and community pride. The placement of the mural on the side of the Erie House, a shelter for disenfranchised women dealing with alcohol and drug abuse, is all the more fitting because forgiveness can be a gateway to healing.
Though Johnson has no connection to the Erie neighborhood, most know his story and his message of forgiveness. “This mural’s message is really moving. Its message is accurate and it’s what the city of Philadelphia needs at this time,” said Saundra Atwell, the block captain of the portion of 13th Street that extends from Erie Avenue to Venango Street.
“There is nothing like this along Erie Avenue. It’s going to help to educate the neighborhood and everyone that drives through it.”
Kurtis Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.