‘We Grieve’: Community project unites neighbours in healing

LONDON (AP) — It’s nothing flashy. But then, it’s not supposed to be.

The plywood wall that surrounds a building site, painted with the words `We Grieve’ in massive letters, has become a focal point for people of the Stamford Hill neighbourhood. It is there that they gather each Thursday to remember those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic.

It might seem an odd venue. But it’s central and there’s space for social distancing — a place for civic grief.

“What we’ve found, almost by accident, is the need for communities to stand together and grieve,” said the Rev William Taylor, vicar of St Thomas’, an Anglican church on Clapton Common.

This London neighbourhood is diverse, even for a multicultural city. The common park was once surrounded by terraced houses built for the genteel who flocked to the area in the 19th Century. But new groups moved in after World War II.

The ‘We Grieve’ wall stands in silent testament at the end of a remembrance event where the names of five people who recently died were added to the community wall at Clapton Common, in London. PHOTO: AP

Taylor felt bereft when Britain’s coronavirus lockdown prevented him from mourning with others after the death of his friend Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, a leader of the Orthodox Jewish community.

The friendship between Taylor, who tweets as @HackneyPreacher and Pinter, a leading figure in the deeply traditional community of thousands, may have seemed unlikely. But the two bonded over their wish to build a spirit of friendship among those who lived near Clapton Common.

Among many initiatives, the pair worked together to convert a derelict public toilet into a community centre on the edge of the common. The mock-Tudor structure was half-timbered like the Liberty department store in central London, giving the new centre its name — Liberty Hall.

The project was designed to create neutral ground. Pinter, for instance, was adamant that it offer a bicycle repair clinic, so his cycling-mad community would go there.

After years of work, Liberty Hall was nearly complete. Ahead of its April opening, backers painted the words THANK YOU on the temporary wall surrounding the site in bright orange letters to show gratitude for often small contributors who raised GBP50,000, (USD61,600), for the project.

Then the virus struck.

Pinter tried to persuade his community to follow the government’s lockdown rules, which many were reluctant to do. He spread the word door-to-door until he contracted COVID-19 himself. The rabbi died on April 13.

Taylor grieved. One morning while running the common, he was jarred by the sign on their joint project. He discussed it with other members of the Clapton Commons community group, and they decided to repaint the wall. “THANK YOU’’ was replaced by “WE GRIEVE.’’

Everyone who rode the 254 bus into central London could see it. The community responded, flooding social media with support. The wall clearly hit a nerve, for Britain has seen over 38,000 people die in the pandemic, a death toll second only to the United States.

A conversation between Taylor and designer Mike Abrahams led to the ceremony of posting the names of the dead every Thursday, just before the nation pauses to clap in support of health workers battling the pandemic.

Each person is remembered with a simple sheet of paper glued to the wall. A bell is rung. Then there’s a moment of silence.

Sixteen people have been remembered. They include a doctor, a hospital porter, a father and son who worked as cobblers, a retired seamstress, and a bass guitarist.

Marcia Mullings came to remember a friend and her brother, Gary, who died of cancer and had only a small funeral because of coronavirus restrictions. Being with her neighbours eased her pain.

“We remember that we have lost loved ones,’’ she said. “We also are going to remember that we’re not alone in this.’’