In the past several months, the Rev. Dr. Carey G. Anderson has done 10 of what have come to be known as “COVID-19 funerals.”
Wishes are set aside to honor state mandates that limit gatherings. That means only a few people in his first AME Church, or by the graveside; all are masked and socially distanced.
The rest of the mourners watch from their cars, struggling to hear, participate and properly grieve.
“I didn’t have a microphone, the cemetery didn’t have a sound system,” Anderson said, remembering a recent funeral service. “So I am speaking at the top of my voice so they can at least hear about the life of a person who is very close to them.”
It is the antithesis of the touch and togetherness that mourning demands.
“It wasn’t a complete loss,” Anderson said. “But what is lost is the human compassion of touch. We miss it, but we have to be very sensitive.”
So when Anderson — pastor of the First AME Church, the oldest African American church in the state of Washington — was asked to join a nationwide series of candlelight vigils honoring those lost to COVID-19, he accepted immediately.
“It resonated with our mission and ministry,” Anderson said.
The “Mourning Into Unity” vigils were held the past two Mondays at more than 20 houses of worship around the country — outdoors, with participants masked and socially distanced, or attending online — from the mighty Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York to the tiny Eagle Harbor Congregational Church on Bainbridge Island.
Last Monday, when the First AME held it second vigil, the rain forced the group inside, where about 20 people settled into the red-cushioned pews, distanced and masked. Another 91 people joined via livestream.
“Praise God,” Anderson began, and then called for prayers for the victims of COVID-19: “The ones who died alone, held only by God, because no one was there in their room.
“It has taken over 220,000 lives,” Anderson said of America’s toll, “but we are still together, believing, hoping and understanding that a change will come.”
And then his pleas to God expanded, filling the room like the smell of incense: Pray for those who are still suffering from the disease. Pray for the businesses and stores that have closed during the pandemic, and the employees who are out of work and struggling to feed their families.
Pray for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Breonna Taylor. Pray for Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, in recent days, has been criticized by President Donald Trump.
Pray for those impacted by the recent hurricanes and wildfires. For the victims of systemic racism and police brutality and corruption.
“We mourn our democracy!” Anderson said, spurring a few to respond with “Amen!”
“But we will not let grief,” he said, “have the final word.”
Along with the first AME and Eagle Harbor churches, three other churches in Washington state held vigils; and the Faith Action Network of the Tri-Cities area held a gathering in a Richland park that included six houses of worship — Jewish, Unitarian, Islamic, Buddhist, Christian and Lutheran — and unions representing health-care and meatpacking workers.
At Monday’s vigil, Anderson was joined by Elise DeGooyer, of the Faith Action Network; and Ahmad Mahallati, a nephrologist at Virginia Mason who represented health-care workers, and who read from the Quran.
“It’s the only action that doesn’t lead to violence and carries through humanity,” Mahallati said of the vigils. “Gender. Religion. Everything.”
Nancy Ianucci, one of the organizers of the AME vigils, got involved out of frustration.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to unify this country and how to make things whole,” she said. “You can’t visit people in nursing homes, you can’t have a funeral service. You have to take the ashes home and wait.
“It just makes me feel like I’m doing something. And I do feel better.”
At the first vigil last week, Anderson watched as people stood in the church parking lot, and the people in the apartment building next door stood in their balconies.
“People become connected when we can share in each other’s sorrow,” he said. “We are no longer an audience. We become partners. We become family.
“This is a critical time in our nation’s history, when there is so much rhetoric being spread. So we have to hand an olive branch to each other. Then the ‘we’ becomes an ‘us’, the ‘us’ becomes an ‘all’ and the ‘all’ becomes ‘together.’ Unified.”
Zinda Foster, a member of he First AME for 24 years, attended the first vigil Oct. 12 to feel less alone and feel part of something that combats and soothes.
“When you can’t gather, you can’t share,” she said, “You can’t get the strength of the other person.”
It didn’t matter that she was standing in a parking lot, at a distance from others, some in their cars.
“It was a parking lot, but it was a heart space,” Foster said. “I felt better when I left, even though I didn’t talk to anyone. It was a big sigh, shoulder-relief kind of thing.”
The vigil gave Peggy Mayer, of Edmonds, the chance to get out of her own head, and stand with a group of people who are diverse, by being focused on this same “tragic moment” we’re in, she said.
“I get stuck in the bubble of my own brain,” Mayer said. “So being with others in that space did help combat that sense of isolation and gave me hope for the community, that in coming together, we can make progress.”
There is no plan for the vigils to continue at the First AME, but Mourning Into Unity organizers and participants think there needs to be some sort of spiritual gathering through Election Day.
“Whatever happens, regardless of how this turns out, people are going to be angry,” Foster said. “The impact on us in a mental-health way is not going to be manageable. We will be in a grief stage that I think, personally, is dangerous.”
The vigil ended — as all did — with a Blessing of the Ballot Box, which reads, in part:
Remind us of those suffering and grieving; inspire our vote for the well-being of all; give peace to our polling places; safeguard each ballot that it be counted;
Make of us all a more perfect union, that you may delight in the diversity of our democracy.
And let all the people say: Amen.
On the way out, Louise and Steve Creighton — who came to Monday night’s vigil from Bellevue — felt changed. More at peace than they had in a while.
“There was a good feeling in the room,” Steve Creighton said.
“I feel a lot better,” Louise added. “I feel united, like we’re not alone.
“It’s time for all this to end, you know? It’s time.”