Pray Their Names

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Sonoma residents Dee Dee Johnson and her daughter Alexandra and husband Bruce. Dee is second cousin to Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers.

What’s in a name? Reverend Katie Morrison, the creator behind the traveling outdoor-art installation “Pray Their Names,” aims to help us find out. 

The project was envisioned by Morrison as a field of 160 wooden hearts—each bearing a hand-lettered name—memorializing 160 Black lives that have been lost to police violence. It is currently at the First Congregational Church of Sonoma United Church of Christ.

“In the BLM movement we’ve been hearing the call to ‘say their names,’ and I wanted to create a space where people could say their names and then go deeper,” Morrison says. “I call it ‘Pray their Names.’ It’s not separate from Black Lives Matter, it’s in the spirit of the movement. Whatever your spiritual practice, you can interact with the names.” 

Walking amongst the names is a moving experience. Placing one’s own body amongst these lives is a testament to the power of art to influence us in ways beyond intellectual knowing.

The church’s Reverend Curran Reichart, who is married to Morrison, says, “Before she was a teacher, Katie traveled the nation, teaching churches about inclusion. The vision for this installation comes out of a lifelong sense of solidarity with the pain and suffering endured by Black and Brown bodies.”

Morrison, known to her Special Education students at Venetia Valley K-8 School as “Ms. Mo,” says of her piece, “I hope that this visual work will be a source of healing for all bodies, a unifying force to bring people together to meet in the pain and wrestle with the implications of institutionalized racism. Once we acknowledge and face the wrong, we can begin to do what is right.”

There have been more than 8,000 deaths of Black and Brown people by police since Emmett Louis Till’s lynching in Mississippi in 1955. Each of the 160 hearts represent the life of a Black person killed while unarmed and/or in police custody. The blank hearts represent the lives lost whose stories were not told. 

“I want to be clear,” Morrison says, emphatically. “This exhibit is not against the police; just because you do something for people doesn’t mean it’s against other people. I believe the police need places to be resensitized to Black bodies as human beings and places to grieve alongside and places to be able to stand tall again and do a better job.” 

Morrison, who was an American Studies major with a focus on race relations, explains that our culture teaches white people many ways to fear Black people, while they simultaneously benefit from that culture—economically, historically and politically. The police, in particular, have a long, entwined history with racism.

“There are so many connections from the beginning of policing and how police forces came to be in America that is directly linked to slavery,” she says. “The first patrols were slave patrols, and now we have patrol cars.”

At least 20 volunteers became involved in the Pray Their Names project.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity for storytelling all the way through,” Morrison says.

Morrison initially called her friend, Sonoma artist Lois Chambers, to tell her the idea she had for the field of hearts. Chambers recommended Peter Craig, a professional woodworker in town, to cut the hearts, and also her daughter, Nicole Grimes—a professional sign maker at Vine Country Signs in Sonoma—to do the hand lettering of the names. Jeanne Sharkey dug the foot-deep holes in the field next to the church. It took two days to dig just 32 holes. 

“It was like cement; it was so hard to crack the earth,” Morrison says of the field, equating it to how people feel about the subject of her piece. “It’s also so hard for people to crack open and be raw about racism.”

Intent was all-important—Morrison made sure the project was infused with reverence every step of the way.

“Everything about this needs to be respectful,” she says. “Through all the work there’s no joking around, we do this with prayerful intention. If you’re coming to volunteer, you’re willing to hold the grief. When we handle these hearts, we’re thinking about the families, we’re thinking about the mothers who lost children, we’re thinking about the traumatized communities. That intention has been infused every step along the way.”

Visitors can scan a code with their phone on the entryway sign to read the stories of each person named. There are 144 stories, each researched by a team of volunteers.

“Folks can walk the rows with their phone and not only say the names but see the face and read the story, be confronted with the horror within the story of how their lives were ended and then walk in their body with it and hopefully be called to a deeper sense of commitment to dismantle the 1,000 cuts a day that are racism,” Morrison says.

It is Morrison’s hope that the healing power of the memorial be for both Black and white people: that Black people will feel heard and seen in their grief and trauma, and that walking with these stories will give others the clarity and the boldness to confront one another when a friend or colleague expresses racism.

“What reparations can you do—if our government isn’t going to do it, what can you do?” she asks. “What Black businesses can you support? How can you be sure that people on the margins are getting some of the benefits that you get based on being of European descent?”

“As progressive people of faith, we believe that there can be no peace until there is justice for all God’s children, no exceptions,” Reichart says. “Pray Their Names evokes the spirit of all that is good in us. Literally out of the weeds in the churchyard, hearts now bloom.”

The dedication was well-attended and included inspiring talks from Morrison, Reichart and D’Mitra Smith, outgoing Sonoma County Human Rights commissioner. Mayor Logan Harvey and Police chief Orlando Rodriguez were invited, but both were out of town during the event. The mayor helped with the installation beforehand and recorded a message for the dedication expressing his support.

A reading of the names will be held on Friday, July 31 at 7pm. Everyone is invited to come, help read names, lay flowers and walk among the hearts.

The installation of hearts will travel to at least four locations in the coming months. After a month in Sonoma, it will move to Santa Rosa, then Berkeley, then Mill Valley.

And what’s in a name?

“A whole life is in a name,” Reichart says. “From conception to death our names speak of the hopes and dreams of our parents, our own aspirations and accomplishments, our bruises and our blessings, all in that universally shared possession—a name.” 

First Congregational Church UCC, 252 West Spain St., Sonoma. July 18–August 14. Open sunrise to sunset. Free. facebook.com/praytheirnames.

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