According to Department of Health data, as of Thursday 206 people have died of COVID-19 in Lewis County.
Like every member of her community, Jane Parker, a congregant at Centralia United Methodist Church, has watched on as waves of COVID-19 swept through the area and the death toll ticked upward.
As the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths climbed into the 10s, 20s and beyond, Parker found herself becoming desensitized to the truth that members of her community were dying from the relentless viral disease.
Once the number of deaths in the county hit about 36 in early 2021, Parker wanted to take action to help her remember: these are real people, not just numbers.
“I'm thinking of this particular individual. I'm thinking of this table with an empty seat,” Parker said.
Once a month, she would head to a tree outside the church and hang white ribbons on its branches, one to memorialize each person in the county who has died of COVID locally.
“The real motivation was just to keep it real. To not become numb, to not become just part of the narrative,” Parker said. “It was an easy thing for me to then turn that into, each time (hanging ribbons), a memorial for whoever that stranger was.”
Praying for those who have died and reflecting on one’s own death is already built into the Christian calendar with traditions such as Ash Wednesday, where members of the church wipe ashes across their foreheads to remember mortality and suffering. Likewise, Good Friday remembers the death of Jesus on the cross, All Souls Day honors those who have died, and so forth. So, Evangeline (Vangie) Rand, pastor at Centralia United Methodist Church, took Parker’s memorial idea and implemented it into her sermons and services, ringing bells on those occasions for the lives lost to COVID.
“We started to ring bells — we have a bell tower up there — a bell for each individual (who died),” Rand said. “At the beginning of November, the number was so high that we could no longer just do one per each, we had to do one for each 10, to give space to remember that each of these ribbons represent someone who was created in the image of God.”
Though that message is heart-wrenching, it tells the story they intended, Parker said.
“We don’t have names,” said Rand. “That’s the question, is like, who are these people? Who are missing their family members? And it’s often invisible.”
Though the tree, near the intersections of Oak and Plum streets in Centralia, is not on a major thoroughfare, it is currently the only visual memorial of the county’s deaths. Through Facebook, Parker boosts the number of people who can see it. And if anyone who sees the tree is moved to come hang ribbons, Parker would welcome the help.
The tree is a solemn memorial. But Centralia United Methodist Church members also have seen some positives from the pandemic. Depending on the rates of COVID in the county, the church bounces back and forth between online and in-person services. Through Pastor Rand’s coaching, less tech savvy members of the congregation have learned about Zoom, giving them new ways of communicating with their families and each other for bible studies and activities. Similarly, the online services have allowed people from all across Lewis County to attend church without a commute.
Asked what she would share to those who were moved by the memorial, Parker said: “I'd invite them to vaccinate, invite them to boost. I'd invite them to mask and do all of the things that we know will mitigate this. And to be respectful and caring towards others.”
To that, Rand added: “Our founder, John Wesley, had these three three simple rules: do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.”