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‘Pray Their Names’ display comes to Petaluma

What: An outdoor, walk-through exhibition created by the Rev. Katie Morrison of Sonoma.

Where: The United Church of Christ PEtaluma, 825 Middlefield Drive, Petaluma.

When: The exhibit is open to the public Monday-Friday after 4 p.m., all day on Saturday and after noon on Sundays. It runs through November 30. The exhibit closes at sunset each day.

Information: For additional information visit UCCPetaluma.org.

Over the roar of rattling and rumbling machines, the old-fashioned metal-on-wood hammering of stakes being pounded into the ground, the called-out conversations and questions of energetically engaged church members at work, and the slightly-distorted, amplified music of hymns floating by from a Pentecostal service taking place just around the corner, Jason Hubbard turns to face a sloping field of brown grass. The field, which stretches out behind the United Church of Christ Petaluma, overlooking the river and the city surrounding it, is currently being transformed into a one-of-a-kind exhibition of wooden hearts, each painted bright red, each bearing the name of one Black American lost to racially motivated violence over the last 65 years.

This is “Pray Their Names,” a traveling exhibit that originated in July of this year, and has already been installed — for one month at a time — in Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Foster City. It is made up of 163 wooden hearts, and was conceived by Sonoma’s Katie Morrison, an artist, teacher and minister. “Pray Their Names,” in which visitors are invited to walk among the names and reflect on the cost of racism and violence in our country, will be on display in Petaluma through the end of November.

“It really is an extraordinary thing to see,” observes Hubbard, artfully spattered with dirt from his work out on the field. “The artist gave us permission to let the art meet the land, in the way we’re installing the names. There isn’t an exact diagram of how it all has to go, so we’re letting the landscape guide us. This way, people coming to view it can sit here and look out at all these names, with our city stretching out beyond it, and pray and think and ask themselves, ’What can I do about this? How do I get in on taking responsibility for what’s happening in my world?’”

The wooden hearts arrived on Halloween, brought to Petaluma on a large truck, and the following afternoon, a team of volunteers from the church began the work of installing them. Hubbard estimates they should be done by around November 5, and ready for visitors. This congregation was eager to host the exhibit, Hubbard allows, as a way of participating in what many see as one of the most important social issues of our time.

“I think it’s an opportunity to imagine that our work is not just for ourselves, but for our whole community,” Hubbard says. “We’ve been in communication with the police department to make sure they understand this is not an anti-police installation. It’s not even a Black Lives Matter installation, in terms of being sponsored by the organization. It’s very much in alignment Black Lives Matter, but it’s about providing a space to recognize and think about the cost of racism in terms of lost lives.”

Hubbard adds that when he first spoke with the Petaluma Police Department about bringing the display, it resulted in some positive conversation.

“I’m such a fan of Ken Savano,” Hubbard says. “We had a great talk about this, and he was super welcoming. He said, ’Bring it on!’ He offered to send a patrol by at night and shine some light out here. There has been some vandalism when the exhibit has been up in one or two other spots. But not much.”

The names on the wooden hearts, Hubbard points out, are just a fraction of the countless Black lives lost in America to racial violence since Emmett Till, who was murdered by a lynch mob in Mississippi in 1955. His name is included in the exhibit, along with Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was shot in Mississippi in 1963, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Then there are more recent names — Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant III, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, George Floyd — who died in controversial police actions that have been at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“See the stakes out there? At the very end of the exhibit?” asks Hubbard. “They are creating a kind of serpentine path at the edge of the display. Those stakes have no names on them. The idea is that, through all of this, as you walk among all these names and you get to the end, it’s not really over. We don’t know whose names will be next. Will they be someone we know? A friend? Family? It’s a very powerful statement.”

The display includes a sign with a little QR code that visitors can click on, on their phones, and it will take them to a site where they can read about all of the people whose names are on display.

“There’s another stake that says ‘Known & Unknown,‘” Hubbard points out. “There are plenty of names not included. This is just a fraction. This is about violence against Black people in our culture, and that is not just a recent problem, it’s a historical problem, it’s an American problem.”

What: An outdoor, walk-through exhibition created by the Rev. Katie Morrison of Sonoma.

Where: The United Church of Christ PEtaluma, 825 Middlefield Drive, Petaluma.

When: The exhibit is open to the public Monday-Friday after 4 p.m., all day on Saturday and after noon on Sundays. It runs through November 30. The exhibit closes at sunset each day.

Information: For additional information visit UCCPetaluma.org.

According to Katie Morrison, who created the exhibit, there was a time when we could make believe that institutional racism and violence against Black people was a thing of the past. It was, she says, an illusion many white people clung to, even while Black communities were experiencing something very different.

“Then all of a sudden, we were seeing all of this video footage we hadn’t had the technology to see before,” says Morrison. “And we realized that this kind of thing was still happening today, and it was happening often. African Americans are walking around fully aware that they are much more vulnerable than others.”

“Pray Their Names,” an adaptation of the phrase “Say their names”—which has become a rallying cry at many protests across America—is what Morrison decided to call the display because of her belief that prayer, meditation, reflection and grieving are important steps in taking responsibility for systemic racism in our culture.

“I wanted to create a visual space to feel and grieve,” she says. “We need public spaces to grieve and to feel and to wrestle with our histories.”

Asked if she had any idea the exhibit would go on to travel around the Bay Area, she says it was not in her mind at all.

“I was just focused on bringing my vision to a tangible reality,” she says. “I was on summer break doing anti-racism work at the First Congregational Church in Sonoma, where my wife is the minister. The exhibit was inspired by the book, ‘My Grandmother’s Hands,’ which looks at our history of trauma against Black bodies, and police bodies, and white bodies. We all carry the institutional trauma of all that violence. We are the recipients of something that happened before us, and that still goes on because we continue to be influenced by that trauma we all carry. And so that violence continues.”

And for now, “Pray Their Names” will continue.

Morrison says a number of churches have made inquiries about bringing the exhibit to their own property. There is a possibility of the display going to Las Vegas soon.

“This is not anti-police,“ she says. ”That’s important to make clear. This is anti-violence. This is anti-discrimination. This is anti-hate. This is anti-racism. Those are the things we have to be opposed to. That’s the work we have to be engaged in. And part of that work is remembering the names of the people who’ve lost their lives simply because they are Black.“

As the sun slides down behind the nearby houses, the stakes already installed throw long shadows up the hill, reaching out toward the church and the crew, who will work another hour or so before setting the project aside until tomorrow.

“One of the reasons we wanted to have this exhibit here, with this view,” says Hubbard, “is that we wanted to draw a connection between these names, and the world beyond it — the river, the granary, downtown —and to how we want to take responsibility for it. This is a house of prayer for all people, up here. Whether you are theist, atheist, Black, Jew, Christian, straight, gay, white, Muslim, whoever you are, this is your place to come up here and read these names, and sit in a way that is meaningful to your practice, and to ask yourself those hard questions.”

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