People’s United Methodist Church on Broadway in South Portland has set up a display with strips of cloth, each one representing a person in Maine who has died from COVID-19. As of Jan. 12, there have been 438 COVID-related deaths in Maine. Catherine Bart photo

SOUTH PORTLAND — Members of People’s United Methodist Church on Broadway said they found profound meaning upon learning what a display of cloth strips at the church’s entrance represented.

The idea of Pastor Thomas Frey, the small memorial has strips of cloth tied to the railings at the church’s Mussey Street and Broadway entrance, said Doreen Gay, church and board of trustees member. Each strip of cloth represents a Mainer who has died due to COVID-19.

She said that in November, Frey was inspired by a similar display at the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church in Waterville.

As the number of deaths in Maine has risen — as of Jan. 12, there have been 438 COVID-related deaths in Maine, according to the Maine CDC — Gay said that the visualization of the number has affected her and many other members of the church.

“You can see and hear numbers all the time and be moved by it, but it’s a whole different experience when you see something that represents each and every person,” she said. “I think for everyone they take something different from it.”

For church member Rosemary Herd, the memorial display is a playing a part in raising awareness of taking necessary health precautions in the face of COVID-19, she said.

“As it continued to grow, the concern was greater and the fact that perhaps people were not taking this virus seriously,” she said. “I believe we’ve lost far too many Mainers due to not taking the necessary precautions.”

The cloth strips representing Mainers who have died due to COVID-19 represent the individual uniqueness of every loss, said church member Linwood Arnold. Catherine Bart photo

After learning about the display’s purpose, Linwood Arnold, church member, said that the strips of cloth serve as a reminder for why the church cannot have in-person service and hasn’t for some time.

“From a distance it looks like a mass of something-or-other, and as you get closer, you can tell it’s strips of cloth, but then you get real close and you can see each one is different, different colors, different patterns,” he said. “It’s sort of symbolic of the way we see a number of casualties. You can step closer and see each of those numbers is a whole life, with its variety and uniqueness.”

The memorial reflects casualties in a public health “war,” Arnold said.

“Everything we’ve learned about how this virus works has been at their expense, so there’s a debt of gratitude there,” he said.

The strips remind church member Brad Morrison to pray for the families of those who have died from COVID-19, he said in an email.

“For me it’s also a constant visual reminder that one, (the virus) is everywhere; two, it does not discriminate as to who gets it; and three, I have to do my part to help not spread the disease — wear a mask, wash my hands frequently, physically distance, sanitize common area surfaces when in contact with them,” he said. “It’s not too big a change to be aware of other people’s health around me as well as mine.”

When people pass by the memorial, Herd hopes that they will think of the families who have lost loved ones, she said.

“They’ve lost a loved one, and it’s not just old people,” she said. “It’s all ages. Please don’t think you can be in a group of people and be safe. And I think that’s the part that people aren’t understanding, that just because you know these people, you don’t know who you’ve been in contact with.”

Herd, a retired pediatric nurse, has seen many different ailments that could have been prevented had people been more careful, she said.

“It doesn’t take much to put a mask on and to wash your hands and just be conscious of other people,” she said. “I don’t think we should live in fear. I just think we should be more aware of our environment.”

Similarly, Gay said that she sees the display as a reminder for “due diligence.” Members of the church, natural “huggers,” have had to social distance from one another, which has been challenging.

“I think the memorial is an act of love,” she said. “I think it’s valuing life and it’s a representation of those who may have passed or may have lost a loved one. People aren’t alone.”

For Arnold, the sharing of grief is a moment for healing, he said.

“Even in normal times, when someone dies, it’s comforting that others acknowledge your grief, what you’re going through and have a certain amount of empathy,” he said. “That’s comforting — That’s healing. Even in that moment when people drive by the church or walk by and see it and know what it means, that’s a healing moment.”

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