One thousand white flags lined a park in downtown Jackson Tuesday, one for every 10 Mississippians who lost their lives to coronavirus. Behind them, the governor’s mansion loomed, only a street away. Before them, an interfaith gathering of Mississippi religious leaders joined together to mourn more than 10,000 individuals across the state who have died from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 revealed to many just how connected the human condition is,” said Rev. Reginald Buckley, president of Mississippi’s Baptist State Convention. “It revealed the disparities that exist within communities. Experiences of life and death have us mutually tied—and today we stand in solidarity with families and individuals who have been met with the unimaginable. We reflect, and we remember, that many who passed this life were in lonely intensive care units, separated from the warmth of loved ones.”
Working Together Mississippi, a nonprofit coalition of interfaith activists, organized the event shortly after the Mississippi State Department of Health announced the 10,000th fatality. Although the numbers firmly establish COVID-19 as the worst pandemic since the influenza pandemic of 1918, the state also has thousands of excess deaths that State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs has previously suggested are likely to be COVID-related.
Speeches honoring those lost over the long, enduring pandemic were mixed with devotional readings. As noon arrived, Rev. Ronnie Crudup Sr. led those gathered in a moment of silence. Church bells tolled across the city, ringing out over the capital of the hardest-hit state in the nation. One in every 294 Mississippians has died of COVID-19 as of this week.
Crudup began the event with a prayer: “Father, we praise you, o loving and wonderful God, the God who is with us. God, we are here today. Remembering all of the dear people across the state of Mississippi who have become victims of COVID-19. But we pray for their families, that your touch and your help could be with them and upon them. Thank you for the privilege of this gathering.”
The service brought together representatives from Mississippi’s Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities, united in the communal spirit of memorializing the pandemic’s casualties.
Savannah Willis, speaking on behalf of Jackson’s Masjid Muhammad, recited the Istirja, a prayer for the lost. “These words recited in Arabic are ‘inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,’ which means ‘surely we are from God, and to him we return,” Willis said.
Rabbi Joseph Rosen of the Beth Israel recited the prayer El Malei Rachamim, a commemoration of the lives of the deceased, joined by Rabbi Debra Kassoff. “God, hold them forever in the shadow of your wings, so their souls may be bound up in the bundle of eternal life,” Kassoff translated.
On display at the memorial service was a survey of how Mississippi’s religious leadership has processed and responded to the grief and trauma of the pandemic—over a year of death, isolation and displacement.
Bishop Brian Seage of the Episcopal Diocese of Jackson reflected on a long year of a community in separation. “We had to do things which were unimaginable,” he said. “Which one of us who is a faith leader ever imagined that we’d be telling people that you can’t gather in person? You can’t gather in large crowds? It was anathema to me.”
Other religious leaders acknowledged the task of keeping the faith in long days of heartbreak and sickness. “Some have died long before it was their time,” United Methodist Church Rev. Warren Coile said. “But best of all, God is with us. Some died in isolation, others with no more than Facetime to know their loved ones were aware. Best of all, God is with us. Families and loved ones have not been able to say goodbye—but still, the best of all, God is with us.”
Rev. Heath Ferguson, representing the Baptist Memorial Hospital System, closed the ceremonies. While all of the clergy at the memorial service helped to guide their congregations through the pandemic, Ferguson ministered to the ill directly, visiting COVID wards to offer comfort in the long struggles—and last moments—of many.
“Those bells ringing earlier were tough,” Ferguson acknowledged. “I thought of … all of the hundreds of bedsides, the COVID deaths I ministered to. They all came rushing in. It was a little too much.”
That number, Ferguson said, continues to rise. “Yesterday I helped a wife withdraw life support on (her husband)—a long hauler—weeks after she withdrew life support on her father-in-law. We are still losing Mississippians,” he said.
“I think if these souls speak to us, they would say to do three things: tend to the grieving … tend to those dealing with the trauma of caring for them, those that made it and are still dealing with the effects of COVID. Care for the caregivers,” Ferguson added.
“And make peace in this world.”