The Backstory

The Backstory

They’re easy to miss if you don’t already know they’re there, embedded in the sidewalk next to the Seattle Mennonite Church. Thirty-two bronze leaves which, depending on the season and the time of day, can fade barely noticed into the background of the sidewalk, or shine as brightly as stars.

 This is The Backstory on:

The Leaves of Remembrance

Thirty-two Leaves of Remembrance are located in Lake City in front of the Seattle Mennonite Church, each one engraved with a name and year of birth and death, commemorating a life once lived in our community.

These Leaves are part of the Tree of Life project developed by WHEEL, a homeless women’s organizing effort. The Tree of Life sculpture in Victor Steinbrueck Park is the only permanent homeless memorial in the world.

The Tree of Life in Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market.

 

The tree has two large branches with leaf-shaped holes stamped out of the iron. The fallen bronze Leaves of Remembrance symbolized by these holes are scattered throughout the City near places that people have felt connected to, including the Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City.

The Mennonite Church became one of the first installation sites in 2012 when Sally Kinney, a member of WHEEL and founding member of the Lake City Taskforce on Homelessness, approached pastors Melanie and Jonathan Neufeld to ask for support for the project. Sally recently explained why she took her request to the Neufelds. “I have great admiration for Melanie and Jonathan and their work in Lake City”, she said.

“Over more than a decade, they have gathered the un-housed people in our area together, given them a home in God’s Little Acre, the Mennonites’ drop-in center, started first a night shelter in the church which graduated to a roving shelter in many different area churches, and perhaps most importantly, given them a voice in our community.”

“When I mentioned the Leaves project to them, it was with the intention of them adding another symbol of love they show to our outside neighbors: a place to permanently honor the fallen with these Leaves.”

Community Pastors Melanie and Jonathan Neufeld listen to stories shared by families and friends.

Melanie recalled “We started laying leaves early on, going back to people who had passed in 2007. It’s a real mix of how people have lost their lives. Overdose is certainly a major cause, accidental death, medical issues. The average person is in their 40’s or 50’s. People in the homeless community are dying much earlier than the rest of the population.”

The Homeless Remembrance Project and the Church hold a dedication each year, giving family and friends an opportunity to tell stories and commemorating the fact that this is the sidewalk people have walked on, where they were known by name, where friendships were made and where people will continue to be remembered.

 

“It’s a pretty significant event when all of a sudden a whole family shows up, and says they wished they had known their son or daughter was homeless,” said Melanie. “Sometimes it’s only on their death that they find out how significant the homeless community was in their loved one’s life. We find out about their childhood and what they were like growing up and we are able to piece their life together a little more.”

FAMILIES, FRIENDS AND COMMUNITY SHARE MEMORIES.

Learning more about each person also highlights how quickly a life can change. Marco S., whose leaf will be placed this summer, was a husband and father who had a snowboarding accident and was given Oxycontin which led to a heroin addiction. Melanie said Marco had significant relationships with his family but “addiction turned the whole relationship upside down. He had to leave and he became homeless. A successful guy who had been working, available to his kids and his family. There is a huge loss in that.”

At the ceremonies, members of the family and community are allowed to select the spot where the leaf will go. Sally Kinney marks the spot with an ancient Jewish tradition, placing a stone on top of the leaf.

This Jewish tradition, Sally explained, dates back to a time when a shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder which held the number of pebbles that cor­responded to the daily number in his flock.  “When we place stones, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling, among all the souls whom God has to watch over,” she said.

Volunteers and donations support the installation and maintenance of the leaves. Several times a year, Sally and other volunteers use a bronze cleaner, a soft cloth and lots of elbow grease to clean the leaves that have weathered and lost their shine.

 Leaves for Martha Weiss, John Carsten Plate Jr. and Douglas Ramm.

 

 

On a recent day, three bronze leaves stood out, shining as the sun filtered between the leaves of a real tree nearby.

 

 

“Distant Star, there you are; Shine for me as I travel on.” – Martha Weiss

  • Martha Weiss, a talented musician and artist, was well known in Lake City for her renditions of Bach and music of all genres. Bi-polar episodes left her homeless, but with help, she came back, created her own CDs and encouraged others to know that “People can come back from tragedy.” Martha was 44 when she passed.

 

John Carsten Plate Jr.

John Carsten Plate, Jr. did two tours in Vietnam before working in commercial fishing and for the railroads. All of his immediate family members preceded him in death. John lived on the streets of Lake City for 15 years before moving into McDermott Place. He was 64 years old.

 

A stone is placed for Douglas Ramm.

  • Douglas Ramm. An on-line post from his family notes “Doug was a special little boy. He loved to tell stories and review movies.” No other information has been shared about him yet, but anyone can post stories to the fallenleaves.org site. Doug was 46 years old.

On August 29, 2018, 5 more leaves will be placed, but not at the Church. The City of Seattle has a permitting process that allows only for a certain number of leaves at any one site. So, the next installation will be on sidewalk right-of-way near the Mini-Park.

“We told everyone this site is full and people said they really wanted, if they died, to have their leaf here. And so that felt like a real loss, because there is a sense of the sacred. They want their memory to be attached to the Church”, Melanie said. “The Leaves really create an opportunity for people to see that ‘Oh, when I die, I will be remembered, even though I feel I am unknown in this community now.’ “

Weldon Nisly, former pastor of Seattle Mennonite Church, summed it up well a few years ago while watching as the leaves were embedded into the sidewalk. He noted that the installer told him that “the leaves are attached so strongly, they will be here longer than we will; they’ll be here forever.”

The Lake City Leaves of Remembrance are located at:

Seattle Mennonite Church, 3120 NE 125th St. Seattle WA 98125

Next dedication: Wednesday, August 29, 2018 3:00 p.m. @ Lake City Mini-Park, Lake City Way and NE 125th Street.

 Find individual stories and more information at fallenleaves.org site