All Hallow’s Eve is now culturally synonymous with masks. This year, the Churches Together Chaplains at the Mill Gate shopping centre, in Bury, Greater Manchester, invited shoppers to put their masks aside.
Looking at the picture above, they may appear to be nothing but mere ribbons, of differing colours, tied to a simple metal latticework. Yet, each one represents a person or, in many cases, a number of people who are loved but no longer with us.
Over the past six hours, Dan Harris and I (Tristan Sherwin) have been standing in one of the malls of the Mill Gate shopping centre, in Bury, offering people the opportunity to tie a ribbon as a simple, but poignant, act of remembrance. To be honest, Dan and I were not at all certain of how this invitation would be received. Nevertheless, as the day has gone on, it’s been clear that this small act has given a good number of people some breathing space in a world of masks, providing an opportunity for them to recall and re-tell something about those they have lost.
As we’ve listened, we have heard multiple heart-breaking stories, as people of various ages have opened up about the grief they carry due to the death of loved ones. Cancer, miscarriage, fatal accidents, murder… tragedies that have indiscriminately deluged lives, leaving a flotsam of emotions and circumstances in their wake. Some losses were as recent as last week; others have left a hole for a number of decades.
It has been a humbling day, witnessing the responses of differing people. Grief is a wound many of us carry, but do not often acknowledge. As someone described it to me today, it’s ‘something I’ve squashed down and rarely talked about.’ Countless tears have flowed during the past six hours. This may hardly come as a surprise. But mingled into those tears was also a sense of comfort, of knowing there was no need for pretence.
It’s not every day that people are afforded the safe opportunity to express, honestly and openly, the burdens and bruises we carry. Surprisingly, what started as a conversation about the loss of a loved one, flowed into further conversations about the other burdens and bruises people carry—things, again, that are often concealed and rarely spoken about.
We’ve lost count of how many times we have heard the refrain of, ‘Thank you’, today: ‘Thank you for doing this’; ‘Thank you for listening’; ‘Thank you for giving me time to talk.’
Many people, it seems, share the experience of the psalmist, feeling that ‘no one gives them a passing thought! No one will help; no one cares.’ (Ps. 142: 4, NLT).
Dan and I have been Churches Together chaplains at the Mill Gate for the past year, primarily seeking to be an ear to those who work there. Today, it has been our privilege to be an ear to the many customers who pass through its hallways. Our hope is that we have managed, in some little way, to model God’s ear and God’s heart towards those who often feel like they have to bottle things up and hide their pain behind a mask of serenity.
Our world, I feel, is in need of more ears and fewer mouths. Our prayer is that God will grant us all ears to hear and hearts willing to listen.
As the day comes to an end, there are possibly around one hundred ribbons tied to the trellis. It is no insignificant number. But it still represents a tiny fraction of the hidden pain people carry.
Tristan Sherwin is the Pastor at Metro Christian Centre, an independent Pentecostal church. Rev Dan Harris is leading local United Reformed Churches in conversations about growth.
Churches Together in Bury has independent, Roman Catholic, URC, Baptist, Methodist, Church of England, Assemblies of God and Salvation Army churches and fellowships as members.