The first COVID memorial ribbons at the Grant AME Church in the South End were assembled last April in apartments and the basement of the church – an ambitious project coming from Pastor Pedro Castro that no one could have imagined would eventually, and sadly, almost envelop the church a year later.
The colorful ribbons denote all of the official deaths from COVID-19 that occurred in the state, as well as several thousand prayer requests from church members and the community at-large.
First there were a hundred or so.
Then they hit several thousand.
Now, there are more than 18,000 ribbons wrapped four or five times around the church in an L-shape – including 16,645 ribbons that represent those that passed away from COVID in Massachusetts.
“This isn’t something we played catch-up on,” said Castro. “This has been a journey from the beginning and a story that unfolded, and one where we didn’t know where it would take us. Some people have an idea and then create a story, but this has been something that was a journey from the beginning of all of this, and a journey that continues on. We still don’t know where it will end.”
On Monday, that was all recalled by leaders of the church who said it has brought about an outreach into the community showing compassion and healing.
Rev. Stephanie Castro said they are grateful the idea was conceived, and that it came to fruition.
“I think we are really glad the pastor came up with the idea and even more than it came to pass,” she said. “Not all ideas come to fruition. It was great that we were able to remember people and they weren’t us another person that passed away…People die every day. To take a snapshot and let everyone be part of it, we were saying we may not know you, but we stand with you to mourn the loss of your loved ones.”
Pastor Castro got the idea from a conference he attended in Toronto several years ago, and as the deaths started to be reported in March, the idea resurfaced and he proposed to make a ribbon memorial for all those that died in Massachusetts. He proposed to use colorful ribbons with a number on each ribbon for those reported to have died. He wanted to display these ribbons in an L-shape on the outside of the church.
After he shared the idea with the membership, he said he got some puzzled looks, but soon everyone was in on the idea. Each member and volunteer got a bag of ribbons and they were assigned numbers to write on them, such as ‘COVID-19 #1’ and so on. Those ribbons were brought to the church and stapled onto a clothesline-like structure in 100-foot increments. Once they reach 100 feet of ribbons – about 1,200 ribbons – they have them hung outside with the others.
“At first there were 1,200 or 1,500 deaths a day,” said Castro. “It was hard to keep up. Everyone was chipping in. We had to buy two power staplers and we got really good at putting them on. We built a gauge to help space them out and all day long people just stapled, stapled and stapled.”
Said Executive Minister Donna George, “I watched TV and just clicked, clicked and clicked on the stapler.”
Soon, they also added prayer cards with the names of people who had prayer requests turned into them from the church or even online and from the community. That total number now of the death memorials and prayer requests if far above 18,000 ribbons, they said.
“It is the power of remembrance on display,” said Pastor Castro. “This COVID-19 ribbon memorial is an example of what we can do to help the community grieve. By this single act of the church we have connected with the community and with others to find hope. That’s what this ribbon project has brought about. When we re-open, we will take down the ribbons and unfurl them in a ceremony on the street. Then we’ll lend them to the Museum of African American History in Boston. They want to display them as an example of everything that happened.”
Added Stephanie Castro, “The thing about it is once it got beyond that first ‘L’ on the outside, it was very visible. It caused people to stop when they walked by. Everyone was asking what all the ribbons were for. That was in April or May. What is going to be so powerful about it being in a museum is some ribbons have been battered and torn…and there are others that are not as worn that are newer. The lives of the newer ones are forever transformed too, just like the older ones.”
Pastor Castro said all of the work on the ribbons sparked a movement in his church to re-connect to the community as the community reached out to the church for healing. They bought 100 meals from Mike’s City Diner on Thanksgiving to distribute to those in Grant Manor, and they gave out 100 bowls of soup in January, distributed blankets to the homeless near the church, and had a sneaker/sock drive with the Nurses Association of Canton. That ministry of service, sparked by the ribbon memorial, is a permanent change to the church.
“The church became very visible – the church with all the ribbons on it,” said Castro. “It jump started the church to say ‘there’s more we can do and what else can we do?’ That’s a permanent change in our church – raising funds to make a difference in our community.”
Sometime around Labor Day – after major construction is completed on the inside of the church and it is safe to return to services – the church leaders said they will carefully take the ribbons down and have members of the church and community stretch it up and down Washington Street. It will be a solemn remembrance of so many that did not survive COVID.
“That’s going to be powerful,” said Pastor Castro. “Usually we’re standing in the middle of the street because we’re protesting. This will be about standing in the street for peace and healing.”