‘Pray Their Names’ display comes to Petaluma
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.”