In June, Linda Matlack began inquiring about all of the people who had died from gun violence in South Jersey since January 2015, a task that would consume so much energy she barely had time to reflect on the victims.
"There were 88 as of early August," said Matlack, who is coordinating a "Memorial to the Lost" exhibit for the Medford Friends Meeting to raise awareness about gun violence. Pale-green, blue, and yellow T-shirts, each representing a crime victim, will be mounted on PVC pipe frames and arranged in rows on the meetinghouse lawn Saturday.
The exhibit will be created by the Quakers in collaboration with Heeding God's Call to End Gun Violence, a Philadelphia-based interfaith organization.
"Wow, I've been so busy I haven't even read the list," Matlack said in an interview this week when asked how many were children. It contained four teens and a 10-year-old Burlington Township boy, Ruben Johnson 3d, who was killed by his father last month.
Matlack said the list was compiled before she learned an 8-year-old Camden girl, Gabby Carter, was shot in the head on Aug. 24. Several men had opened fire across the street from the child's house. "So now there will be 89 T-shirts," Matlack said, sighing.
Each T-shirt will bear in black marker the name of the victim, age, and date of death.
"When I first walk through the exhibit, I'm sure I will be sad . . . but I'm glad we made this effort to get people talking about this," said Matlack, a member of the meeting's Peace and Social Concern Committee.
Bryan Miller, executive director of Heeding God's Call, said the three-year-old nonprofit had been surprised by the public's reaction the first time it erected a similar display in Philadelphia in 2013. "It's very dramatic, colorful - it looks like a colorful graveyard. It got people to stop their cars and to get out and walk among the T-shirts," he said.
In Philadelphia, there were 238 T-shirts, a stark illustration of the city's murder rate in 2013.
The Medford display on Union Street will be the first in South Jersey and will remain at that location for two weeks. It memorializes people killed in Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, and Gloucester Counties.
Starting Oct. 2, the exhibit will be installed at the Moorestown Friends Meetinghouse lawn.
Miller, formerly the executive director of Ceasefire New Jersey, which lobbies for gun violence prevention, said the exhibits are rotated every two weeks to houses of worship and to community parks that are willing to be hosts. Other T-shirt graveyards are currently on display or are being installed in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia; Prospect Park in Delaware County; Gwynedd in Montgomery County; and in the Washington area.
The displays have appeared outside more than 50 houses of worship over the years. "We hope people will be inspired by [the display] to take action," he said, noting that literature is provided at the sites and list the names and numbers of members of Congress. Miller said the group doesn't use the phrase gun control because those words have become divisive, and instead the focus is on "preventing gun violence."
Miller said that the exhibit is emotional, especially when a loved one of a victim shows up and stands by that person's T-shirt. "When that happens, we give them the T-shirt and then replace it. . . . People are very grateful to see their loved one honored this way," he said.
Carol Suplee, a Quaker and a spokeswoman for the Medford event, said the Friends hope it will have an impact.
"If anything will help, it's more public concern and action since the politicians are paralyzed. This effort is a graphic representation of the tragedy here in these counties. And out here in the relatively peaceful suburbs, we sometimes don't realize the extent of this national disgrace," she said.
Gun violence takes an average of more than 30,000 lives each year across the country, according to Heeding God's Call.
About five years ago, the Medford Friends put up a similar display - but with empty boots. "A display of combat boots worn by fallen New Jersey men and women, and a mound of shoes representing civilian deaths, were mounted on the meetinghouse lawn. We cannot forget the powerful impact that silent display had," Suplee said, describing the exhibit memorializing those killed in Iraq.
The new display, Suplee said, is designed to have the same effect and to "shed more light on the real people lost among the grim statistics of gun violence."
A dedication service for those memorialized in the exhibit will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday.