The lawn in front of the Moorestown Quaker meetinghouse is crammed with about 100 pastel-colored T-shirts mounted on T-frames. But why?
Located in a prominent area, the display that went up Sunday is eye-catching. Road traffic moves by briskly, but pedestrians can see that each of the yellow, blue, and green T-shirts contains the name of a person, a date of death, and an age, written in black marker.
Each represents someone in South Jersey who died from gun violence in the last two years, including an 8-year-old Camden girl whose T-shirt had twisted sidewise in the wind earlier in the week, making it stand out in the somber row.
"It's meant to move you and call you to action," said Marty Smith, a member of the Moorestown Friends Meeting, who organized what is being called the Memorial to the Lost. It is the latest in a series of similar exhibits created since 2013 by the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Heeding God's Call to Action.
"We want to do our part to reduce gun violence, even if it's a little tiny bit that we can do," Smith said
But one day after the exhibit was installed, some "pushback began," Smith said. "Not everyone is in favor of what we're doing here, but that happens when you take a stance."
Gun violence is a delicate topic in this divided nation, and the wording on the exhibit's sign caused one resident to complain that it implied that all 87 victims represented on the lawn were killed in Moorestown alone.
The sign at first read, "Witness to the lives lost to gun violence in our community (2015-2016)." Smith said the our was meant to refer to the wider community. However, she agreed to spell out "our South Jersey community," using a marker, to try to quiet any concerns.
Smith, a retired math and science teacher at Moorestown Friends School, which is adjacent to the meetinghouse, said parents and teachers were told of the exhibit ahead of time so they could prepare for questions from the children.
Smith said Larry Van Meter, the head of school, told her he supported the display but wondered "how he will be explaining this to parents." She said the exhibit was initially planned for a grassy area between the school and the meetinghouse, but was moved farther from the school "so that it wouldn't frighten any little kid who wanders over to it."
Van Meter could not be reached for comment. Mike Schlotterbeck, a Friends School soccer coach who handles marketing, said parents received emails telling them the teachers were prepared for any questions from the children.
Bryan Miller, founder of Heeding God's Call, said similar memorials have been displayed at about 75 locations in Philadelphia; the Pennsylvania suburbs; Harrisburg; Newark, N.J.; and Washington. He said they have been erected in front of churches, synagogues, mosques, meetinghouses, and various other faith-based locations.
The former executive director of CeaseFire New Jersey, which lobbies for gun legislation, Miller said he got involved after his brother, an FBI agent, was shot and killed 22 years ago in Washington.
Miller said Heeding God's Call is careful to avoid using the words gun control in its signs and literature because that phrase has become "divisive and pejorative." He prefers gun violence prevention and hopes everyone can rally behind such a goal. The group is not against gun ownership but wants to curb gun violence, which Miller said claims more than 30,000 lives a year.
"We don't expect everyone to like [the exhibit], or love it, but overwhelmingly the response has been positive," he said.
Moorestown Friends Meeting will host the exhibit for the next two weeks. The town's popular Candlelight Night is scheduled for Friday and may bring visitors past the exhibit on East Main Street.
The T-shirt memorial was first displayed in front of Medford Friends Meeting in September and will go on rotation to other houses of worship in South Jersey after it leaves Moorestown. It is expected to be installed at the Westfield Friends meetinghouse in Cinnaminson later this month and then at the Newton Friends meetinghouse in Camden, Miller said. Haddonfield Friends Meeting plans to host the exhibit in the spring, he said.
Medford Friends members created the display, purchasing the T-shirts and marking them with the names of gun-violence victims that a volunteer collected from prosecutor's offices in five South Jersey counties - Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Cape May.
Linda Matlack, who organized the Medford exhibit, said she originally hoped to get the names of all such victims in South Jersey, but the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office told her it would not provide names, saying the victims were entitled to privacy. Salem County, she said, ignored her requests.
Those prosecutor's offices did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Miller said he was dismayed that the prosecutor's offices would take such a stance, considering that the names are public record and that a religious organization was requesting this.
Medford faced another issue when the family of one victim objected to seeing their loved one's name printed on a T-shirt in a photograph that appeared in a local newspaper, Miller said. The family said it did not mind that the person was included in the exhibit but wished it had been notified. Miller said it is difficult to obtain contact information for each family.
Miller said that in the past, other families have seen the exhibit and asked if they could keep the T-shirt.
"It's really an emotional thing, and some people are very grateful to see their loved one honored in this way," he said.