Sermon “Shrines Along the Way” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
The spring and summer of 1997 were exciting.
We moved across county, watching a smear in the sky at night as we drove. It turned out to be the Hale-Bopp comet, and a few days after arriving, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate Cult in San Diego took their own lives expecting to hitch a ride on the passing comet as if it were a space ship.
A few weeks later, Ellen deGeneres came out as a lesbian, the first prime time tv star to ever do so, and the queerest city on earth was ecstatic.
In July Gianni Versace was found dead in his Miami home, and a perpetrator was apprehended after a cross country killing spree that included a stay in our little burg just a week earlier.
Then Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car wreck crossing the English Channel.
Maybe it was just the energy that had been building on that public emotional roller coaster, but suddenly grown men were weeping openly, clutching stuffed animals. Six-foot drag queens in six-inch heels were carrying sixty-pound floral sprays. Ordinary people were lighting candles and showing each other framed photographs of the woman they’d watch grow from shy Lady Di to the celebrated humanitarian.
All of them, hundreds of them, were gathered at 18th and Castro, at the geographical center of the city. They left an enormous mound of THINGS attached to the bank building, tied to the fence around it, or resting on the pavement from the sidewalk into the roadway.
Five days later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta died, and the energy for the Diana shrine increased exponentially, as if Diana’s charitable work were a symbol of all compassion ever expressed by everyone everywhere, including the soon-to-be saint. And it all had to be expressed right then and there, on that corner, in that city on that coast of that country. A place I’m sure none of the dead had ever been.
At first I thought the phenomenon of a roadside shrine was unique to San Francisco, and that I was just new to an age-old tradition. But the same thing was happening in cities all over the world. The largest shrine, which you can see on the front of the order of service in the middle right picture, was at Buckingham palace.
In the end, 60 million flowers were left weighing 15 tons, and that doesn’t include the notes, flags, photographs and stuffed animals that were collected, catalogued and warehoused.
Ever since then, I’ve noticed the impromptu memorials that pop on roadsides, marking places where regular people ... children, spouses, parents and neighbors have died, usually in collisions or shootings. They’re everywhere. If you pay attention you can see them any day of the week.
In researching the phenomenon, I came across a few scholarly articles, mostly doctoral dissertations written by theology students interested in public expressions of collective grief, but also articles about how local governments deal with the tsunami of letters and mementos that sweep in after tragedies that attract national or global attention.
Whether it’s true or not, they all claim that it the phenomenon always existed but really took off in the mid 1980’s, with the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. For those who haven’t seen it, the memorial is essentially two walls of polished black granite, each 246 feet long tapering from a few inches to nine feet high were they join, and holding back a berm of earth behind them.
Viewed from their intersection, one points toward the Washington Memorial, the other toward the Lincoln Memorial. Each wall is made up of 140 panels, and in total they are carved with the names of 58,320 people either killed or missing in action in Vietnam.
But you probably have seen it, because it is the most-visited memorial in the Capitol.
It was designed by Maya Lin, from Athens OH, who was then an undergraduate at Yale University’s School of Architecture. She entered the blind national design competition after taking a class in the architecture of death. She’d been inspired by the Hopewell and Adena Indian burial mounds near her childhood home, and the serenity they induce, rising up out of the ground. Because Lin is of southeast Asian heritage and because many veterans were insulted by a design they interpreted as “nothing but a hole in the ground,” there was a lot of controversy. But, despite the controversy, the Memorial was an instant success. As the foundations were being poured, a man threw a small memento in the wet concrete, and that started the practice that would define the space and its power.
From its dedication on Veterans Day 1982, people began leaving letters at the wall. Letters to the dead. Letters to the missing. Letters to their families. Some formally composed and typed in advance. Others scribbled in shaky hands revealing emotional turmoil.
Some letters were written on meaningful items like photographs, fabric, medals, flags, uniforms, hats ... or whatever was close to hand in the moment, like business cards, hotel stationery, candy wrappers, Bible pages, dollar bills, even food and cigars. Lots of cigars.
Many of the items were framed, including a copy of a letter from Joe Muharsky of Chesterland OH to “Diane Evans and all the nurses who served in Vietnam,” supporting their effort to build a memorial in their honor — a memorial that was finally build in 1993. Framed were not just letters, but newspaper clippings, war department death notifications, draft cards. Often they were in shadow boxes with other memorabilia.
Then there was all the other stuff. Maps and aeronautical charts. Snow globes and trinkets from around the world. Stuffed animals. Thousands of stuffed animals. Even a pair of prosthetic legs and a custom built motorcycle.
Much of it was photographed by Michael Sofarelli in his book Letters on the Wall. All of it was collected, catalogued and stored. In fact, the National Park Service, the curators of the collection, set the standard for how this kind of thing is dealt with, including after the death of Princess Di. And still, every day 10-25 items are left at the wall, collected and saved. Except on special days honoring Veterans and Fathers, when up to 1,000 items are left.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial may have brought about an uptick of roadside shrines and other impromptu memorials, but it didn’t create the phenomenon out of thin air.
For generations, going all the way back to the Aztecs, Mexican families have built ofrendas in their homes to honor deceased loved ones, acknowledging that the dead are never really dead until we have forgotten them. The ofrenda is a small altar, covered with photographs, candles and favorite foods of the deceased, similar to the the Chinese lineage table dedicated to deified ancestors.
If you’ve ever seen the Disney Pixar animated film called Coco, you know a lot about ofrendas and the theology behind them.
Interestingly, since that movie was released, there has been a huge increase in the number of white European unchurched families building their own ofrendas.
What does that tell you?
In some European traditions, building on ancient pagan practices of runestones to mark the place of death of a person killed in battle or by accident, families build small altars or even chapels on their property, honoring Jesus, his mother Mary, or any of the saints of the church. They offered for the spiritual and physical comfort of of passersby.
They can be anywhere. By a heavily traveled road or footpath such as El Camino Santiago de Compostela, which runs from Spain to France through the Pyrenees, about 500 miles. 300,000 visitors per year encounter dozens if not hundred of shrines along The Way, mounted on posts or trees. They can be in small villages, in the middle of nowhere on a desolate road, at the intersection of two important roads, or at the top of a mountain.
Many communities have long traditions of building chapels on the roadside edges of private property. They are intended for use by the family that funded and built them, and also by the community, with the expectation that the local Priests will treat them as auxiliary sanctuaries within their geographic parishes. They can be as small as 4x6 feet, with just enough room for two people to kneel, or as large as 16x24, with an aisle and two rows of seating, perfect for a small funeral or wedding.
All over Europe, different countries and regions have their own styles, many with names to describe them. The German Schopfloffel shrine looks like a giant ladle, after which it is named.
Personally, I love the ones in Latvia, glass-doored and roofed boxes on thick posts, which look almost exactly like the Little Free Libraries that have sprung up across the United States in recent years, offering a place for neighbors to exchange books. Those are a kind of shrine to reading and the slow death of the printed book.
Wherever they are, these wayside altars, chapels and shrines are all built with intentionality, for years of service to the community of residents and passers through.
They are sheltered places for expression of private emotion in a public place, with guest registers to mark visits from near and far.
That’s very different from the roadside altars and memorials that have been springing up across the Western Hemisphere since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated.
These long-lasting shrines and temporary memorials all seek to do what the letter from John Truesdale to Lieutenant Corporal Wade does. It establishes deep human connection where none is obvious to the casual observer. It expands our circles of caring and connection, and makes each of us a part of a story that we wouldn’t otherwise be included in. At least not knowingly.
Shrines and memorials are open expressions of shared emotions in public places.
And their very existence of the temporary memorials creates a tension ... between respecting the people involved, and the pragmatic need to deal with its deterioration into trash.
They force public and private organizations to make decisions about the emotional wellbeing of the communities they serve. They turn local governments into curators of historical documents after events like the Newtown or Parkland tragedies.
But these shrines and memorial do something else. Something more elemental.
The Aggregate Religiosity Index (such a thing exists, created by sociologist J. Tobin Grant) shows a decline in religious participation in the United States beginning after its peak in the late 1950’s.
But it started to really drop in the early 1980’s, and it’s been all downhill since.
Now I’m not saying that The Vietnam Memorial and the the subsequent shrines caused a sudden decline in worship attendance. I don’t think there’s a direct causal correlation.
I am saying that maybe we build these memorials because at times of loss we need community in the absence of church. We need a place to grieve, and bear our souls and to have our pain noticed by others. For the unchurched, the contemporary “nones” a church or synagogue or mosque never arises as an option.
So they create their own kind of worship space, their own open-air sanctuary.
I’d like to share with you part of a poem written by my colleague, Rev. Sharon Wylie, who serves a congregation in Escondido CA, called “Nobody needs a church,”
“I’m spiritual but not religious,” they say, and
“I’m not comfortable with institutionalized religion.”
That’s all well and good.
But I get phone calls from strangers hoping I’ll visit a dying father
And emails from strangers requesting prayers.
I’ve seen people crying in the grocery store
And the mall parking lot.
I consider stepping in, but
People say they don’t want ministers these days
And I already have congregants I never visit.
My heart is a wellspring of grief for all I cannot do
And all I cannot serve
And saying no, sometimes, is the only way I can be sure
I can say yes when I need to.
“I’m homebound,” they say, and
Nobody ... wants a church
A loved one is dying or dead and
It would be nice to have someone give the eulogy
And people to bring the casseroles
And friends to sit and cry with.
We need roving gangs of chaplains patrolling the streets
Accompanying the grieving and witnessing the suffering
Answering 24-hour hotlines
And churches staffed with ministers to spare
Maybe that’s what these roadside memorials, impromptu shrines and tiny wayside chapels are meant to do in the current age: gather the “roving gangs of chaplains” to places where grief is shared openly and lasting connections are made, even if they look fleeting.
When life gets chaotic with deaths of icons and iconoclasts; massive cultural shifts; economic spikes; astrological, geological and climatological upheaval; and political spectacles, maybe the thing that we are called to do is to is simply “Accompany the grieving and witness the suffering.”
Maybe these shrines are not just for remembering the dead or appealing to a god or saint you may or may not believe in. Maybe they are for the purpose of leaving messages to each other via the stuff we leave behind, the teddy bears, photographs and flowers. The names written in guest registers.
Maybe these shrines are the “24-hour hotlines” that remind us that no matter how crazy things get in this world where nobody needs a church, we are not in fact alone.
Maybe we, all of us who take the time to stop, are meant to be those roving chaplains.
If we are, we’d better pay attention. Because as our wayside pulpit says, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” And if there is anything we are devoted to, it’s the needs of other humans.
So, if you see a roadside shrine or memorial, stop. Pay attention. And if someone is there grieving. Invite them here. Where they and their complex emotions will be honored. And Nurtured.
May it be so.
Please rise now....