On the evening of Aug. 31, hundreds packed into Scoville Park for a birthday party that, in a better world, would not have happened.
There was a moment of silence and a somber recital of the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage, the courage, the courage to change the things I can,” said a local minister).
A multiracial crowd belted out several renditions of “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by sobs, and a group of people released white balloons, which hovered above confused faces before floating out of sight.
As the somber celebration was wrapping up, it was announced that relatives and close friends would be getting together later for ice cream and cake, in honor of the absent Elijah Sims.
The Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, who would have been 17 on Aug. 31, was shot on Monday night while standing outside with friends in nearby Austin. He died a day later. A 15-year-old boy who was with Sims was also shot, but survived and is reportedly in stable condition.
At Wednesday’s vigil, organized by OPRF teacher and Suburban Unity Alliance founder Anthony Clark, those who knew Sims most intimately spoke about him.
The Oak Park teenager had been anticipating this Wednesday for at least two weeks, said his aunt Wanda (who asked to be identified only by her first name).
“Everybody in the family he touched, he’d remind, ‘You know the 31st. You know what the 31st is. You better get your money together. You know we’re doing a collection,'” said Wanda, prompting a rare bout of laughter. “This was his day and he waited [for it].”
Alexis Norman, the sister of Sims’ girlfriend Tayanna Norman, was so close to Sims she considered him a younger brother and made him godfather to her 1-year-old son. She described Sims as a playful “bug” who “got on my nerves,” but who “was everything to me.”
Last Thursday, Norman recalled, Sims followed her around Pete’s Fresh Market in Oak Park, where he had been working for the past three months.
“I was trying my best to avoid Elijah because I knew he was going to be at work,” Norman said. “I was trying to sneak in and get a cart. But as I was sneaking in the door, here he go running up behind me with a cart. He followed me all the way through the store.”
Norman said she tried shooing Sims away, but he trailed her. He had a question to ask.
“‘Alexis, can I ask you something?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I’m going to ask your sister to marry me on my birthday,'” Norman recalled. “What do you think she’s going to say? I’m like, ‘Elijah, you know she’s going to say yeah to you. You know that girl can’t leave you alone.'”
Norman said she thought her exchange with Sims had ended, but he continued to follow behind her as she shopped.
“I’m like, ‘Ain’t you supposed to be pushing carts somewhere? Leave me alone. Where is your manager at? I’m about to go tell on you,'” she recalled. “He said, ‘Go ahead and tell him. Give him good reports because, you know, I don’t even work carts no more. I’m a cashier!’ He was so proud to say that.”
Jesse Davis, 17, an OPRF senior who plays varsity football, said he last talked to his friend after a game on Friday.
“I just told him to be safe,” Davis said, before exhaling incredulously. “Now, we here.”
Cory Cooper, 18, was Sims’ best friend. He was with Sims the night he was shot. Cooper said he and Sims were out in front of a friend’s house in Austin.
“I told him, ‘I’m about to go home, bro, I’m tired,'” Cooper said. “He was like, ‘Let’s wait till like 9:50’ and I’m like, ‘Naw, bro, let’s go home. He said he was going to stay for a little bit and he was like, ‘I love you, I’ll call you,’ and I said, ‘I love you, too, bro.’ After that, I get this call.”
A police report indicated that Sims wasn’t affiliated with any gang, an observation Cooper reinforced. Sims, he said, was focused primarily on making money.
In addition to his job at Pete’s, Sims also created a side job removing scuff marks and scratches from people’s cars, said his mother Sharita Galloway. He’d charge $10-15 for each job. He’d even meet people at their homes.
Galloway said her son wanted to be a nurse. Two years ago, she said, she moved to Oak Park so her son could realize that ambition.
“When I gave birth to Elijah, we called him baby boy,” Galloway said. “I felt his little first heartbeat on my chest and the morning that my son passed away, I felt his last heartbeat. I felt my baby’s last heart beat because somebody wanted to get a gun and shoot.”
During an interview after the vigil, Calvin Galloway, Sims’ father, said his son was simply in the place he had lived for most of his life and that he knew best. Unfortunately, he said, it was “the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“We live [on the border in Oak Park], so you only have to walk across the street and you’re back on the West Side,” Galloway said. “That’s where he was at.”
At Wednesday’s vigil, some speakers seemed to have run out of platitudes.
“I cannot tell you this won’t happen again,” said state Sen. Don Harmon (39th), who described his attempts to help pass more robust gun legislation in Springfield as “an uphill fight that we’re not winning and it makes me angry.”
“We have to stop talking and start doing,” Harmon said.
“This reminds me of when I lost my brother,” said state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th), before hugging Sharita Galloway.
“What got me and my family through that time is the community. Ms. Galloway, I’ve been here. You are not alone and we love Elijah and your family, and you must remember that.”
Clark, whose niece was killed last August during a shooting in Austin, said he organized Wednesday’s vigil because “in Elijah, I saw myself.”
“Just like Elijah’s family, my parents made sacrifices to move me here when I was younger,” Clark said. “I just had to do this tonight. … I’m tired of talking, I’m tired of losing beautiful young men and young women. … It’s time for change.”
There will be a visitation for Sims on Tuesday, Sept. 6 at Smith & Thomas Funeral Home, 5708 W. Madison St. in Chicago, from 4 to 8 p.m. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Sept. 7 at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 Washington Blvd. in Chicago.