by Connie Larkman | published on Aug 19, 2021 on United Church of Christ Website. The idea was shared by someone at church.

Fold a small Soul Box to remember a soul touched by gunfire.

The people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland, OR., have embraced the concept. “This is exactly the kind of activism I could really get a hold of,” said Nanci Tangeman, First Congregational’s Soul Box coordinator.

Members of First Congregational, Portland, Ore., share their work with each other on a virtual Soul Box Sunday.

‘Power of Taking Time’

The church was one of the first faith communities to join the Soul Box Project at its inception in 2017. A year later, Tangeman wrote a UCC News commentary about “the power of taking time to purposefully acknowledge a victim” of a gun.

Since then, the congregation has become the faith community most prolifically involved in the project. Church members have folded upwards of 20,000 little origami boxes that hold space for “a life lost or injured by gun violence, defense, accident or suicide.”

“We have to stop using guns as a way of solving problems,” said Leslie Lee, artist and founder of the Soul Box Project. After a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017, Lee created this national community art project as a tangible reminder of the sheer number of people touched by gunfire.

Now gathering boxes made by people in 39 states, the project collects and exhibits tens of thousands of the handmade boxes to raise awareness of the U.S. gun epidemic. Once of the latest exhibits, in Portland in late June, is documented in a video by the Rev. Eric Elnes, senior minister of First Congregational.

First Congregational members participate in an exhibit June 26 at Multnomah Arts Center, in Portland, Ore.
On display were over 70,000 Soul Boxes representing one year of U.S. gunfire deaths and injuries.

Folding to Remember

Tangemen said while the exhibits show the numbers, the Soul Boxes can also provide peace, as they provide someone an opportunity to take action against gun violence.

“I am so happy to be able to do this small thing,” said Nan Wagner, a First Congregational member. “Fold a Soul Box and make a difference.

“Soul Boxes’ motto is ‘Art revealing the gunfire epidemic.’ In my life, gunfire affected me … The person who would have been my mother-in-law died by gunfire … before I got to be her daughter-in-law,” said Wagner. “I have my own grief about that.”

Wagner said she is folding Soul Boxes “off and on all day. I fold when I finish the crossword puzzle. I often fold a big batch during Zoom meetings. I fold when it feels like everything is going to hell in a hand basket and I need the centering power of folding a shape I know how to do in my sleep.

“I fold for Shirley, who I never got to have as my mother-in-law. Guns were easily at hand in the home my husband grew up in. So when things became more than she could handle, it was a quick and decisive solution for her. Pills or razor blades might have allowed for a second chance to seek help. But a loaded gun in the dresser drawer made it so there was no turning back from the edge. I miss her without ever having known her. I blame guns and the lack of gun control that my children didn’t get to have her for a grandma.”

‘Quiet, Calming Effect’

Wagner said that folding a Soul Box has become very meditative and centering, especially during the pandemic.

“When I felt like I was stuck in a box and feeling pretty useless, I could fold a Soul Box or maybe two or maybe 20 … and it had a really centering quieting, calming effect for me.”

Before COVID-19, First Congregational would hold Soul Box Sundays, with members meeting monthly during fellowship hour to fold them together. They filled a display case in the church lobby with hundreds of their work. The church also serves as a drop-off point for Soul Box makers around the city. Tangemen, who is often found picking up and delivering Soul Boxes, said five other area UCC churches have joined the effort.

“Even when we could not be together, folding Soul Boxes continued to be a small action each of us could take on our own to remember gunfire victims,” she said, noting that COVID didn’t stop Soul Box Sundays. “During our Zoom church services, our hands could be seen moving just off screen, folding Soul Boxes as we worshiped.

Making them Personal

“As was the pandemic norm, people used what they had on hand as paper for Soul Boxes — magazines, old calendars, junk mail. Some kept up with gun violence news and wrote victims’ names on their Boxes. Others took the opportunity to make individual works of art or just fold and fold and fold.”

Both women said people fold with whatever they have on hand and often personalize their work.

“I fold both halves of the box then unfold the top, flatten it out and play with colors and shapes on the top 4-inch square,” Wagner said. “I’ve tried lots of different mediums but I keep coming back to Crayola crayons! I loved them as a child and I still find them really satisfying for my particular style.”

Headed to Nation’s Capital

In October, a First Congregational contingent will join the Soul Box Project in Washington, D.C. On Oct. 16 and 17, 2021, they plan to create 200,000 boxes in an exhibit on the National Mall, to represent the number of people in this country killed or injured by gunfire in three years.

“Visitors will be able to get up close and view over 35,000 Soul Boxes personalized with names and messages,” Tangeman said. “The remaining 165,000 Soul Boxes, representing the victims whose names we’ll never know, will be carried onto the Mall in a solemn procession and then out again at the exhibit’s conclusion.”

More information on making Soul Boxes for the exhibit or joining the D.C. procession can be found here on the Soul Box website. [Event now past.] Wagner and her husband plan on being there.

“Leslie Lee says, ‘If you could save a life by folding two pieces of paper, would you?’ I would,” Wagner said. “During this strange time of pandemic isolation and uncertainty, folding a box brought moments of calm and purpose.

“I’m grateful to the Soul Box movement and what it’s brought to my life.

“Sometimes I can focus on the multitudes who have lost their lives to this time of rampant gun violence. But most of the time it’s too much to wrap my head around, and so I fold for Shirley.”