LISTEN: First Presbyterian rings bells to honor 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in America

Anchorage residents listen to bells toll at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage on Sunday evening. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

The national COVID-19 death count crossed 200,000 last month. Social distancing and quarantine protocols have made it difficult to gather to mourn as a community, but yesterday, First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage held a short outdoor ceremony to recognize the huge death toll of the ongoing pandemic.

About 60 people spread themselves out on the downtown park strip Sunday evening to listen to bells toll from First Presbyterian Church. 

The bells rang out 200 times, each toll representing 1,000 Americans who have died due to COVID-19 in the last eight months.

Standing and listening in silence, onlookers said they felt empathy, loss and a collective sense of mourning. 81-year old Jim Powell said his mind went to the families who have lost or may lose a loved one to the virus. He said the scale of the loss is devastating.

“We’re approaching the population of Anchorage,” he said. “And I suspect we will reach that level and keep going. Because even though there’s talk about it rounding the corner, there’s no sign of that.”

Anchorage residents gather on the Delaney Park Strip to commemorate more than 200,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. (Photo by Kavitha George/AKPM)

First Presbyterian Reverend Matt Schultz said they chose to do a bell-ringing as a way to help people grasp the scale of the death toll. 

“If there were anyone listening to the bells thinking, ‘Wow, this is going on for a long time,’ then that’s the point,” Schultz said. “It’s far too many deaths. And it’s important that we never, ever grow accustomed to it.”

Anchorage resident Sarah Kleedehn lost her uncle to COVID-19. She said it was meaningful to get to recognize her family’s loss.

“It was so good to come down here and just kind of mourn that and mourn for all the people that are gone and just hope for better,” she said.

These days, First Presbyterian is only holding online services. “It’s nice to see people we love and haven’t seen for a long time,” Kleedehn’s friend April Hoffman said. “We needed to do this because the world needs to pay attention to how devastating this has been to people.”

The church is currently collecting donations of masks and mask-making materials to deliver to the Bering Sea island village of Gambell, which is facing its own COVID-19 outbreak and a shortage of masks, said Schultz.

On Monday, Alaska reached a record daily high of 194 new cases. In total, 58 Alaskans have died of COVID-19.