By Gretchen Berger
Back on April 30, 2017, the West Side Rag reported on a memorial service that was held at the Christian Community Church on West 74th Street for “Stephen”, the young homeless man who passed away in Riverside Park on March 9, 2017.
On Sunday, after this young man was successfully identified as Neil Harris, Jr., another service was held — this time with Neil’s mother and immediate family, along with some of his childhood friends who traveled from upstate New York and Long Island to attend. Here, they finally got to meet Neil’s new friends from the Upper West Side who looked after him, and also visit his bench in Riverside Park near 74th St., which now bears a plaque with his adopted name, “Stephen.”
The Christian Community Church’s priest, Rev. Gisela Wielki, presided over the service, opening with various inspirational excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians and the 23rd Psalm. She then talked about Neil’s life, starting from his happy childhood to his later years, when mental health problems began to emerge and consume him. But despite those difficulties, he always had a big heart, loved animals and communing with nature, his refuge.
In addition, two piano pieces were played: “I Stand at the Threshold,” (BWV 156) by J.S. Bach at the opening, and “Prayers of Kierkegaard” by Samuel Barber at the closing, which provided moving musical tributes.
After the formal service, people in attendance shared their vivid and loving memories of Neil. They included his mother, Susan Hurlburt, three of his childhood friends from Inwood, Long Island, plus the Upper West Siders who watched over him during his residence here, where he was truly part of the neighborhood fabric. As one of his friends said, Neil wasn’t really homeless — although his home didn’t have four walls and a ceiling, it was still his home.
Other notable speakers included Jessica Brockington, the journalist whose tireless work was instrumental in ultimately identifying Neil; Detective Ray Olsen of the Nassau County Police Department who also assisted with the investigation; Melinda Hunt, who oversees the Hart Island Project; and Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer. Hunt said that this was the first time she had ever seen a community come together to identify a homeless person. She added that thousands of homeless individuals are never identified, so sadly families never find their loved ones, or know what happened to them.