A group gathered in Solvang Park on Saturday to remember the 455 people who died of COVID-19 in Santa Barbara County.
Local residents met for an Infinity Healing Ceremony to reflect on the past year of the pandemic at noon on Saturday. During the ceremony, multiple religious leaders and community members offered encouragement to those who lost loved ones.
Nakia Zavalla of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians opened the ceremony by performing a blessing of the land ceremony. She was followed by remarks from Randall Day, a rector from St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Community, and Rabbi Debi Lewis from the Santa Ynez Valley Jewish Community. Both leaders encouraged attendees with a message of love and support.
“We come seeking healing — infinite healing — for ourselves, our families, our circles of friends, our communities, our humanity,” Mr. Day said.
“Human closeness is a real pathway, even if it seems risky, to the healing we seek individually and the healing we seek in communities,” he added, noting the year of social distancing and isolation all community members experienced.
Ms. Lewis echoed a similar sentiment in her message, telling community members that they are not alone in their mourning.
“We are here to be with you,” she said. “We will get through this.”
During the ceremony, attendees participated in a smudging ceremony — a traditional indigenous practice of burning medicinal plants to cleanse the soul of negative energy — and placed rocks on a small altar in remembrance of those who died.
Esron Gates, wealth management strategist for Healing Justice Santa Barbara and a member of the Latinx and Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 task force, played a leading role in organizing Saturday’s ceremony. During the gathering, he led attendees in a guided meditation that focused on releasing grief and accepting love.
Mr. Gates said the event was ultimately inspired by one of his fellow members of the COVID-19 task force, who recommended the idea of having a healing ceremony to help community members through their mourning.
In addition to Saturday’s event, Mr. Gates said there will be multiple ceremonies across the county to remember lives lost through the collection of rocks. All of the ceremonies will culminate in a celebration in Santa Barbara where event organizers will place the rocks in the ocean as a final resting place.
“I hope people take away the fact that it’s okay to release the grief and to embrace the love of their loss,” Mr. Gates told the News-Press. “And that we are one community that we need to heal together. And the only way to really heal together is to be together and talk to each other.”
Dr. Melissa Smith, the director of Health and Equity Initiatives at UCSB, also played a role in organizing Saturday’s event. She said she is hopeful the healing ceremonies across the county will help promote a feeling of togetherness after a hard pandemic year.
“Coming together at the end and bringing all of that collective loss and grief, as represented by those stones, and releasing them into the sea is a way of, I think, affirming our collective spirit and that we are there for one another,” Dr. Smith told the News-Press.
Multiple community members participated in Saturday’s ceremony, including Seva Ramirez, who made the trip up to Solvang from Santa Barbara to remember the lives of her ancestors. While reflecting on the pandemic year, Ms. Ramirez noted how the pandemic changed the way she lives her life now.
“I am very grateful for the pandemic because I learned a lot,” Ms. Ramirez told the News-Press. “I live very differently. I understand that we are all the same.”