Sisters’ ‘Soul Box’ exhibit provides solace to families of victims slain by gun violence

Beverly Emers, a gun violence survivor, bangs a gong Oct. 16, 2021, in Washington at a Soul Box Project exhibit, a memorial to victims of gun violence. Soul boxes are “hand-crafted, origami boxes that hold space for each life ended — and others that were affected — by gun violence,” according to artist Leslie Lee, founder of the project. (OSV News photo/Michael A. McCoy, Reuters)

by Robert Alan Glover

(OSV News) — For the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, offering well-intentioned “thoughts and prayers” to grieving families after every mass shooting is sometimes not enough.

On June 29, the sisters honored hundreds of people who have fallen victim to gun-related violence in Michigan, and the memory of one of their own: Sister John Clement Hungerman, who was murdered 40 years ago in Detroit.

“Her death was very difficult for the sisters to handle, and she was killed right in front of the house where she lived with several other members of our order,” Sister Elizabeth Walters told OSV News.

Sister Hungerman — a beloved, hardworking teacher of physics and academic dean at Mary Grove College in Detroit, who held a doctorate and was known as the “bionic nun” — died Nov. 7, 1983. She had been shot to death by a neighborhood vagrant she had helped several times.

“We watched the newscast about it on television and her death moved us to advocate against gun violence,” said Sister Walters.

Speaking about the gathering, Sister Walters said, “Different groups have sent us the names of people who have been lost to gun violence, and our gallery exhibit provides a very reflective, powerful moment for those who visit it.”

In order to honor the memory of Sister Hungerman and other victims of gun-related violence, the IHM Sisters made a “Soul Box” exhibit. As artist Leslie Lee, founder of The Soul Box Project, told OSV News, Soul Boxes are “hand-crafted, origami boxes that hold space for each life ended — and others that were affected — by gun violence.”

A lifelong professional artist, graphic designer and ceramic sculptor, Lee told OSV News she created the Soul Box Project following the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting at an outdoor music festival.

The gunman behind the horrific atrocity massacred 59 people and left dozens more wounded.

“No one told me to do it; the idea just came to me when the news of the tragedy came across my phone,” Lee said. “The whole thing was too much for me to take in, but I also realized that I could not turn away from the problem (of gun violence),” she added.

“I wanted to create something that represents each of these unfortunate people who were tragically lost, with each of their lives remembered in a separate physical space,” Lee said.

The finished project — beautiful in its simplicity — has grown in terms of popularity as, unfortunately, the tragedy of gun-related killings continues across the U.S., increasing the survivors’ need for solace and closure.

“The Soul Box has a bottom and a lid, allowing people to put messages inside and a photo image of their lost loved one outside,” Lee explained. “The overall effect is very poignant.”

So poignant in fact, that in 2021, supporters of the project would display 200,000 of the boxes on the National Mall in Washington to commemorate the people whose lives were taken by gun violence.

Today, The Soul Box Project has over 50 participating branches located in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Lee noted however, that the project is not just about “the mass shootings which have been so prevalent for the last decade.” They are just a small fraction of the daily death toll from gun violence in the U.S.

Pew Research Center analyzed 2021 complete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and found 48,830 people died that year from gun-related violence in the U.S. Of these gun-related deaths, 54% were suicides, while 43% were murders. The remainder were a combination of accidental deaths, law-enforcement-related killings, and undetermined circumstances. Gun deaths also have risen 23% since 2019, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pew also reported that 81% of all murders involve a firearm, with FBI data showing 59% of murders involve handguns.

The religious sisters’ motherhouse planned to display its Soul Box exhibit through July 9.

“I am really pleased that these 30 panels are currently on display, and that the sisters are planning to provide them to interested, local organizations for continuing display until the end of summer,” Lee said.

She also noted that “the faith community has really embraced this project — even more so than those persons who are working on (gun reform) legislation, because it is a beautiful exhibit and a powerful example for many people to follow.”

“We are trying to do something that works beyond ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and this has proven to be very calming, especially when people learn that the box is going into a display with hundreds of others,” Lee said.

While The Soul Box Project began as a way to remember the mind-boggling number of gun violence victims — of all ages and races — the people who participated in it have quickly discovered an unexpected, beneficial effect.

“People find it soothing to make a lot of them — it takes just a few moments to make one soul box — and the participant can also add art, messages, and memorials to the victims,” Lee said.

For the IHM Sisters honoring Sister Hungerman, Sister Walters explained, the words of Jesus Christ from Luke 4:18 on her Soul Box say it all: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, to bring good news to the poor, to the downtrodden.” 

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