National Worship Conference hears disaster memorials can teach us to ‘talk less, do more’

“Christianity is not just about intellectualism,” but materiality as well, says the Rev. Lizette Larson-Miller, keynote speaker at the National Anglican and Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, B.C. Photo: Joelle Kidd
Published July 19, 2018

The church can learn to respond to disaster by looking at the ways disasters are memorialized, attendees of the National Anglican Lutheran Worship Conference in Victoria, B.C., heard Tuesday, July 17.

Titled “Responding to Disaster: Prayer, Song, Presence,” the conference’s theme is how worship and liturgy can address disaster, trauma and hardship. In a morning plenary session, keynote speaker at the conference, the Rev. Lizette Larson-Miller, spoke both about her work both as a liturgist and her studies of grassroots and permanent memorials.

In 2002, Larson-Miller received a Henry Luce Fellowship to study why people make roadside and grassroots memorials and what the church can learn from this practice. She identified eight categories of emotional motivation: solidarity, commemoration, reassurance, justice, revenge, fame, sorrow, and the importance of place.

The 20th century has brought a shift in what and how society chooses to memorialize, says Larson-Miller. “Statues of powerful individuals, triumphant arches, buildings and temples in honor of war victories, these have certainly been with us throughout human history,” she says. “They are part of the material culture of human history and Christianity is right there in the middle of it,” she adds, giving the examples of grand churches and shrines to martyrs.

However, the 20th century brought shifts, she says, as horrors like genocide came to light, and pluralism became widely acknowledged. “Different voices [means] there is not one triumphant winner recognized by all. There is not one narrative that fits all sizes.” This led to “a more ambiguous understanding of what a monument does,” she says.

Larson-Miller points to the example of the recently completed memorial site at Ground Zero of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, NY on September 11th, 2001. Rather than stretching triumphantly into the sky, the memorial points downward into the ground, to a reflecting pool. It also offers the possibility of interaction; for instance, visitors able to touch the engraved names of those who died and leave mementos at the site. There is space for both public and private grieving, as it is visited both by the general public and the friends and family members of the deceased.

In contrast, says Larson-Miller, are roadside shrines and grassroots memorials, which have become a common and even expected response to largescale disasters and personal tragedies. These are memorials that are not officially sanctioned but are created to mark some kind of disaster; for instance, a cross which is erected on the side of the road to mark the site of a death in a traffic accident.

Humans are “ritualizing creatures,” Larson-Miller says, and place is important. “Whether it was the actual place of death, which was most frequent, or perhaps another site related to the people who were killed. For many it functioned as that liminal space between life and death, holy ground that was set apart, even temporarily, for purposes other than of daily practical life.”

Larson-Miller pointed out two recent events in Canada that had prompted large-scale grassroots memorializing: the Saskatchewan bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team, which killed 16 and injured 13, and the vehicular attack near Mel Lastman square in Toronto, when Alek Minassian allegedly intentionally struck and killed 10 pedestrians with a rented van.

In both cases, memorials were erected at the scene of the tragedy, with handwritten notes, signs, flowers and other gifts left at the site.

“In the face of unexplainable violence…people want to do something,” says Larson-Miller, adding that she is struck by how permanent and grassroots memorials “form an avenue for multi-cultural, multi-religious response.”

“In other words, we get out of the church building and there are some other people out there,” she says. She adds, “I think we’re called to get out of the building. Or to learn from what’s outside the building.”

Since the 1950s, she says, theology and liturgy has shifted, and religion has ceased to be only private and intellectual. There is now, Larson-Miller says, a recognition by even Reformed Christianity that “Enlightenment-era rationalism, words alone, intellectual explanation and good order are not sufficient.”

Materiality, she says, is important. “Christianity is not just about intellectualism…People, place, time, water, bread, oil, touch, smell, sight and sound. These are central.”

Part of what can be learned from memorials, those that are permanent and roadside or grassroots memorials in particular, she says, is to “talk less, do more.”

Larson-Miller is a professor at Huron University College of the University of Western Ontario, and holds degrees in music, liturgical studies and sacramental theology. She is the chair of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation and the liturgical officer for the diocese of Huron.

The National Anglican and Lutheran Worship conference is a biennial gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and Anglican Church of Canada, in the spirit of the full communion relationship between the two churches.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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