DeKalb church displays 1,200 ‘soul boxes’ to remember Georgia’s gunfire victims

02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur pastor Mary Anona Stoops helps members of the congregation display origami boxes featuring faces of people killed by gun violence in Georgia on the church property in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur pastor Mary Anona Stoops helps members of the congregation display origami boxes featuring faces of people killed by gun violence in Georgia on the church property in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Joining a nationwide movement, a church near Decatur brought attention to the hundreds of Georgia residents who were killed or injured by gunfire last year.

North Decatur Presbyterian Church displayed about 1,200 origami boxes, called “soul boxes,” to memorialize Georgia’s gunfire victims as part of its Ash Wednesday vigil. Comprised of two pieces of folded paper, some of the boxes were adorned with prayers, photos and pictures, while others only held a victim’s name.

The presentation is part of a nationwide effort to visualize the annual number of suicides, injuries and deaths by firearms in the U.S.

“We hope it’ll show the impact of gun violence on our state through the sheer volume of three-inch square tributes to lives lost,” Ellen Gadberry, church member, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — North Decatur Presbyterian Church member Ellen Gadberry hangs origami boxes featuring faces of people killed by gun violence in Georgia on the church property in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — North Decatur Presbyterian Church member Ellen Gadberry hangs origami boxes featuring faces of people killed by gun violence in Georgia on the church property in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The church has focused on local gun violence for roughly a decade. Every third service of the month, church leaders list off the names of people who were shot and killed the prior month in Georgia. The congregation also collected and displayed ribbons for gun violence victims outside of the church until they ran out of room in 2018 — they were then sent to state legislators.

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Gaberry, who leads a social justice-focused art group at the church called “the craftivists,” learned in late 2019 of the Soul Box Project, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that has created nearly 160,000 origami boxes for gunfire victims over the past three years. The other members of her group quickly attached themselves to the medium and began folding.

Alice Hickcox, a church member, said she claimed each gunshot victim as a “child of God.”

“It was taxing, but it’s an honor to get to say that this person’s death should not be forgotten,” said Hickcox, who folded about a hundred boxes. “This person has an importance, and they didn’t lose that importance by dying from gun violence.”

02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — A photo of Ahmaud Arbery (center) is displayed on an origami box alongside images of other people that were killed by gun violence in Georgia in the year 2020 at North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
02/17/2021 —Decatur, Georgia — A photo of Ahmaud Arbery (center) is displayed on an origami box alongside images of other people that were killed by gun violence in Georgia in the year 2020 at North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Sherrill Terry recounted her personal connection to the effort because her granddaughter was wounded by a gunshot during a party in Atlanta about five years ago.

“After that, every month when our congregation read out the name of people who had died from gunshot violence the previous month, I dreaded that one day I would hear my granddaughter’s name,” she said.

At the end of last year, Terry and her granddaughter folded and decorated about 200 soul boxes. The church ended up creating 12 panels that each features 98 boxes.

North Decatur Presbyterian Church initially planned to display the boxes at the Georgia State Capitol in January but couldn’t due to security concerns prompted by the deadly U.S. Capitol riot. Ash Wednesday, a Christian holy day when worshippers are marked with ashes to symbolize death and repentance, was the next logical choice for the presentation, Gadberry said.

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The Soul Box Project was founded in 2017 by artist Leslie Lee following the Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 58 people and injured hundreds more. Lee said she couldn’t ignore the issue of gun violence any longer and worked to find a way to convey the scope of the problem.

“We can say 70,000 people in the U.S. are killed or injured by gunfire every year, but unless you can see that number and feel it in some kind of visceral way, you might not be moved to do anything about it,” she said.

Her nonprofit cites its gunfire statistics from The Gun Violence Archive, which recorded 776 deaths and 1,060 injuries in Georgia last year. Atlanta police opened 157 homicide investigations last year, the most in more than two decades, and the GBI also opened 96 investigations into incidents where Georgia officers, deputies and state troopers fired their weapons.

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Lee compared her initiative to the AIDS Memorial Quilts project in the 1980s, which sought to bring awareness to those killed during the AIDS epidemic.

“We have a gun culture in this country,” she said. “All kind of laws can be passed — there’s a lot of top-down things that can be done that would help — but what would help the most, in my opinion, is that it becomes a bottom-up thing. That people individually realize that having a gun, owning a gun, using a gun is usually counterproductive.”

The church will donate its soul boxes to The Soul Box Project, which plans to take them to Washington D.C. in October for an exhibit. Gadberry said her craftivist group is going to move onto other projects, but she hopes other local organizations pick up the baton to keep Georgia’s gun violence in the spotlight.

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