This morning, I walked into All Saints’ for the first time since the papel picado and the hundreds of prayer flags had been hung in the sanctuary. Unlike other years when people brought theirs to church on the Sundays leading up to All Saints’ Day, flags were dropped off in one of the bins outside my office, or mailed to church, or completed by volunteers fulfilling online requests. And unlike other years, the decorating of the church took place over several days rather than on one evening.
Gina Shropshire and Carmichael Washington kicked things off early in the week. They spent hours stretching lines adorned with colorful perforated paper from one side of the church to the other. Then, they added strings to hold all the flags with names and deeply personal messages of love and loss. Up and down the ladder they went over and over, preparing for the crews of two or three who, over several evenings, carefully stapled flags along the lines. Gina and Carmichael returned last night to make the final adjustments and to raise the flags into place over the pews.
As the prayer flags have gone up, I’ve walked from my office into the church several times to read what people have written. Sometimes it’s simply a name on a flag. Sometimes, a relationship is mentioned: father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, grandmother . . . child, and then, often, what’s missed about the person – the smell of a pipe, their laugh, a shared memory, Eggo Waffles, a bedtime story. Some express regret that a person’s life ended too soon, that he or she missed a child’s growing up, or a graduation, or a wedding. A few record the cause of death – “Cancer sucks!” says one. Another mentions an addiction. A third, a broken heart. Many, many flags say “thank you” – for inspiration, guidance, proper grammar, unconditional love. Is it possible for an already holy space to seem holier at times? If so, All Saints’ feels holier with all the prayer flags fluttering overhead this year – especially this of all years. And yes, at least one flag honors the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
One section, reserved each year, is for the orange flags in memory of those who have died of gun violence in Chicago during the past year. There are 575 of them, a significant increase over last year – part of a tragic trend in cities nationwide. The flags include one for Antwon Winters, the 14-year-old stepson of Denita Robinson – whose community organizing training is being made possible by the Greenlining Campaign. Antwon was fatally shot late on Friday night, October 16, in Lawndale. May his soul and the souls of all the others rest in peace.
Outside the church, there is another set of flags – these all white – 1,100 of them – each one representing five people in Cook County who have died of the coronavirus since the pandemic began. Co-Warden Rob Lentz, who conceived of the installation, calls it “Grieving Field” – a place to remember and weep for these loved ones. And there is an ofrenda created from the community chalkboard on West Wilson Street with photographs of family members and friends, musicians as diverse as Franz Josef Haydn and John Prine, and public figures. George Floyd, whose death triggered worldwide protests against police brutality, racism, and lack of accountability, is memorialized – as is the Notorious RBG.
I hope you will stop by the church tomorrow or Sunday to grieve, to give thanks, to be inspired, and to pray. The church will be open from 10:00 – noon on Saturday – Halloween. In-person services on Sunday, with the new limit of 25 persons, are at 8:00 and 11:00 am.
O God, open our eyes that we may see those who are invisible, and lift us up above the fogs of life. Lead us out into the large spaces where people dare to believe things they cannot prove. And make us one with the communion of saints.