Standing under a banner that read “This is the Lord’s doing,” Sherell Nesmith stood to say goodbye to her brother, whom she called “Bobo.”
At 11 a.m. on Saturday, close to 300 people gathered at Christ Chapel New Testament Church on Dixwell Avenue for a memorial service dedicated to Ray Roberson, a homeless man whose dismembered limbs were found across downtown New Haven in July. Despite the tragic circumstances, the memorial service was not one of sadness or anger. Lasting over two and a half hours, it was instead a joyous tribute to a giving, community-focused man.
“We didn’t come here today for a funeral,” said Pastor Anthony Davis, a close friend of Roberson’s family who performed the ceremony. “We came here for a celebration … we need to celebrate and thank God for life.”
The memorial was religious, with the pastor urging the community to take the time to renew their faith in God. Reading from scripture and singing religious songs, Davis asked the community to lean on their brothers and sisters around them for support.
The congregation was vocal during the service. As Davis read encouraging words of scripture, the congregation shouted out cries of “amen” in response. As friends shared happy memories of Roberson, others stood to applaud in laughter and joy.
But at some points, the congregation was called to reflect on the difficult circumstances that brought them there.
Since July, when the New Haven Police Department first discovered Roberson’s legs close to State Street Station, the NHPD has been investigating Roberson’s death as a homicide. The NHPD has not yet identified a suspect.
“When they find the perpetrator, they shouldn’t just charge him with murder. They should also charge them with robbery,” Davis said, emphasizing the void left in the community after Roberson’s death.
Roberson, born in 1960, grew up on Ashmun Street in the now-demolished Elm Haven Housing Project. Carlton White, who grew up in the same project, performed a poem which spoke of the community they found in the project.
Asking others from the Ashmun Street community to stand in solidarity, White said he wanted everyone to know that Roberson did not live a solitary life. White was one of the many friends and family members present who criticized media coverage of Roberson’s death. Friends and family explained that the media solely represented Roberson as homeless and “transient,” failing to acknowledge the large network of friends and family he had around him and the contributions he made to the local community.
“We all got a story about Ray. Some of us got more than one,” childhood friend Leroy Smalls said. “Ray was my best friend.”
Davis described an instance when Roberson single-handedly repainted the walls of a low-income housing complex to impress state officials looking to renovate the place. The home was later reopened through state funding, which Davis attributes to Roberson’s efforts.
Friends and family also described Roberson as a talented artist and an occasional singer. When the time came for open remarks, a line of people walked to the front of the church to share their stories.
While Roberson was not an active member of the church, his community remembered him in laughter and celebration as a man of faith who felt more comfortable on a park bench than in a church. As the service came to a close, Davis encouraged the community to open their doors to others, adding that they never know when the “next senseless act” may happen.
After the memorial, the family released doves into the community in remembrance of Roberson. Watching the doves fly in the direction of Ashmun Street, where Roberson grew up, his family and friends embraced in prayer and remembrance.
“You may have touched a body, but you could never touch one of God’s souls,” White said.