A year and a half ago, Friends of Allen’s Neck Meeting in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, were called to action through our shared commitment to the peace testimony. Countless acts of gun violence in the United States in the last decade were taking their toll. Fifty-three lives had been senselessly lost to mass shootings in August 2019 alone. We lamented this reality through vocal prayers during worship and in conversations over coffee. Our meeting could not allow itself to become numb to our country’s ongoing trauma. No longer could our heartstrings be torn by our grief.
We believe that untethered gun violence threatens the very fabric of our society. Gun violence is a virus that infects the hearts and souls of all those who are affected by it. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the violence causes waves of grief to fan out in widening circles: from the individual to family, friends, or neighbors; then to community, workplace, or school; and eventually reaching an entire town or city. Friends seek to honor that of God in every person and to overcome violence with love. A simple wish to do something—anything—drew a number of our meeting members together to address our concern that excessive gun violence is destroying too many lives in the United States.
And so in September 2019, an ad-hoc group first gathered over a potluck supper in a couple’s home in New Bedford, Massachusetts. What can we give? What can we do? As we sipped tea and nibbled cookies, a Friend pulled out a collection of recent statistics he’d assembled. As he shared, our hearts sank. The statistics fluctuate year to year and month to month, but the number 3,000 settled like a lead weight in the room (we cite the Centers for Disease Control’s firearm deaths for 2018 at cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.htm). Over three thousand lives are lost to gun violence on average every month in the United States: 765 a week in 2017. We worshiped in silence. We heard another Friend’s message that each lost life could be remembered in the form of a flag. We agreed to meet again.
Our leading to do something was so strong that Friends began designing and creating flags in earnest before our second potluck supper was held two weeks later. When we arrived in the backyard of another Friend’s home in Westport, Massachusetts, two strands of 33 colorful fabric squares fluttered between two 24-foot tall bamboo poles. The soft light of the sunset accented the 66 flags—so many yet to be made—but it was a true beginning. We were overcome by emotion seeing the project beginning to unfold.
The prototype was fashioned after traditional Tibetan prayer flags. We were clear in our intention: whatever we did would be a stand-alone, faith-based action. We did not seek to make a political statement. It was fitting that one Friend had invited a Nepalese Buddhist guest to our meeting. This quiet expression of our faith reminded her of the peace, hope, and healing that are carried on the wind by prayer flags in her country. A believer in social justice, she was inspired by our commitment to call attention to the lost lives represented in the grim statistics. We hoped our prayers would inspire similar conversations within our local community.
Throughout the fall, our group met several times to work through logistics. What would this mean, this gathering of flags? How many? Where? Who would help? When we approached our monthly meeting with rough plans, there was a clear sense that the project should continue moving forward. Our planning ebbed and flowed from worshipful silence to brainstorming to work sessions. We settled on creating 765 flags: a week’s worth of lives lost. We were convinced that by working together, we could accomplish what we had set forth to do.
We opened our hearts to our local community, hoping others would hear our call. Gun violence touches too close to home for so many. In 2017, nearby New Bedford had a record-breaking number of homicides. Violence continues to plague the inner city, and there has been public outcry for solutions. In our own town of Dartmouth and neighboring Westport, there are lower crime rates but just as much caring. Our group imagined how love might emerge from people gathering around tables, chatting while making flags.
We had faith that God’s love would lead us. With a great sense of purpose and no clear end in sight, many people rolled up their sleeves. Fabric swatches were unearthed from Friends’ scrap boxes. Paintbrushes and paint seemed to magically appear, along with stamps, scissors, and butterfly stencils.
Peace symbols and words of prayer were frequent motifs. Sometimes we created flags as a group while meeting in public spaces. At other times we worked quietly at home. A Friend organized a book-reading and flag-making day at our meetinghouse to help children understand our leading and to participate in the process.
We searched for outdoor spaces that would be fitting for a display of our flags. We made phone calls, exchanged emails, and had many informal conversations. By November 2019, we had installed 218 flags in a well-loved space where the Allen’s Neck clambake has been hosted every August for over 125 years. For a month before the cold weather hit, the assorted flags representing two days of deaths flapped amongst the bare trees there. Simple signs read: “Monday” and “Tuesday” with a web address. Drivers and bikers slowed and stopped as they made their way down the country road. Voices hushed as they jotted down the web address.
Although Allen’s Neck Friends were leading this project, its seeds had begun taking life in the soul of our larger South Coast Massachusetts community. Many wonderful, diverse groups of people came together with offers of help. The winter came, and we hunkered down, planning events, collecting more fabric, and brainstorming where the flags could be installed once we had created all 765. Our hearts were completely invested in this project.
In early 2020, a flag-making event was organized at the Co-Creative Center in New Bedford. Anyone and everyone was invited to drop by. Touched by the chance to actually do something in response to gun violence, people gathered at tables, chose pieces of fabric, and got to know each other a bit. The works of beauty that emerged from this gathering were awe-inspiring. They reminded us that there are hidden creative sides to everyone that can be powerfully expressed through the symbolism of art.
We held a second workshop as part of AHA! Night in New Bedford, a much-anticipated monthly event. Community groups, artists, and cultural centers open their doors for the evening to offer free programming and camaraderie. New Bedford Meeting welcomed our project into their space. Tucked up the street from the main action, we invited passersby to express their concern about gun violence by adding to our flag collection. While decorating a flag, one Friend talked about children she worked with in the New Bedford public school system. Some had lost classmates to gun violence. Some spoke of grieving parents.
We had just entered conversations with the New Bedford Parks Department and had shared planning meetings with New Bedford Meeting when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Like the rest of the country, we canceled events and retreated to our homes. But we had plenty of fabric. Some of it was donated by Friends. Community members had also dug around in their attics and found muslin and old pillowcases. A grandmother’s stunning fabric collection from traveling the world was given, with love.
Allen’s Neck Friends went to work in basements and living rooms: sewing, measuring, and drawing diagrams to help welcome the full collection of flags to wherever its first home might be. One member spent hours and hours in front of a sewing machine to arrange the flag strands. Another conducted extensive research about victims of gun violence: ordinary people, senselessly killed, whose stories briefly came to life again as she read. She carefully penned hundreds of their names in permanent marker onto fabric squares. The sewing continued. Gradually, all 765 flags were created.
By spring, everyone had become accustomed to planning sessions via Zoom. It felt safe to gather in very small numbers. Two families with a shared field overlooking Buzzards Bay offered to host the first complete installation. Summer would be the perfect time to move forward with more complex aspects of the project. We needed to cut local bamboo poles, calculate their perfect height, and determine the distance between strands of flags. We also needed to engineer the placement of anchors so that the 1,776-square-foot installation could sustain high winds. These were complicated but necessary details to problem-solve!
So many people sustained the growth of our idea from seed to fruition. Our group gathered on a sunny, summer morning with great faith in our hearts. After a few hours, seven pairs of tall bamboo poles stood proudly, each representing one day of the week. Twenty-one strands altogether held 765 colorful flags, carrying the message that we stand together for peace. Over the next three weeks, the installation felt alive as the flags swayed in the wind and shadows danced on the ground. Though pummeled by high winds, they remained steadfast. The installation created a holy space to truly understand the magnitude of suffering due to gun violence.
Our concern is shared by many in our community. At the time of this writing, the flags now fly at the First Unitarian Church in downtown New Bedford. Throughout the history of this project, our message has resonated with Quakers, artists, bicyclists, restaurant owners, teachers, students, and others. The flags are beautiful; they mean something; they stand for justice.
They represent the beauty of life alongside the tragedy that 765 families experience every week in the United States. As Friends, we call each flag viewer to consider being part of the conversation, to bear witness with us to this current tragedy while encouraging creative solutions for the future.
We believe, with peace in our hearts, that gun violence can end.
765 Small Flags
As Quakers find communion with the Spirit,
Out of the stillness there rises a call to bear witness
In the world seeking peace and nonviolence.
765 small flags witness one week of deaths.
Lives lost to guns in the United States.
Please remember and bear witness with us.