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Display of 15,000 flags at First Christian Church of Decatur memorializes COVID victims

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Display of 15,000 flags at First Christian Church of Decatur memorializes COVID victims

Flags displayed in front of First Christian Church of Decatur to memorialize 15,000 Georgians lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Alex Brown.
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Decatur, GA — On Sunday, Feb. 21, local clergy gathered on the lawn of the First Christian Church of Decatur to remember Georgia victims of COVID-19.  An artistic display of 15,000 small white flags represented the 15,000 Georgians who have died from the disease in the past year. 

Accompanying the flags, signs created by the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee lay out the structural failures that put Georgians at risk in an already terrifying pandemic.

“1 in 4 Georgians face eviction in this pandemic.” 

“No Georgian should die because they don’t have access to healthcare.” 

“In Georgia prisons: 5,011 COVID-19 cases, 92 deaths.” 

“1.7 million public school children have had their futures disrupted.”

Signs on the front lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur. Photo by Alex Brown.

“Georgia needs to have a collective opportunity to grieve,” said Rev. Diane Dougherty, speaking at the event. Dougherty spoke of the process of planting the flags in the ground with the local community. “I called the boxes coffins and I told everyone, ‘these are the souls of the people of Georgia.’ Everyone was respectful of the souls, especially the children.”

The lawn of the church will serve this week as a socially distanced sanctuary, where the community is welcome to collectively grieve.

The concept for the memorial was inspired by the work of artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg. Flags were previously displayed at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. The display is co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee. The flags will be displayed from Feb. 21 to Feb. 28, 2021 on the front lawn of the First Christian Church of Decatur. 

Jacob Flowers of the American Friends Service Committee spoke of the Quaker values that pandemic relief holds, and emphasized the importance of “prioritizing basic human needs like housing and healthcare.” Flowers noted that Black and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. He thanked the First Christian Church of Decatur for “providing a space for Decatur to heal.”

Rev. Paul M. Turner offered the opening prayer, pointing out a specific cluster of flags in front of the microphone. “We planted 15,999 flags [on Saturday], and within the last two days, 233 precious souls have died.” The Georgia Department of Public Health website lists at least 278 new deaths between Feb. 19 and 21. 

Reverend Dougherty used pine branches as makeshift aspergillum during the ceremony. Aspergillum are tools used to sprinkle holy water. “This is an ancient tradition that says, ‘We love you,'” said Dougherty.

Guests invited to the event included Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett and state Rep. Kim Schofield. 

Mayor Garrett spoke to the striking visual effect of the exhibit, saying that as she walked over from City Hall, “the 15,000 fluttering symbols of remembrance took my breath away.” Garrett participated in reading the age and genders of some victims, who ranged from their 50s to 80s.

Rep. Schofield said, “This occasion is not about anything but the people who these flags represent. They lost their lives through no fault of their own. It grieves my soul, it grieves my spirit. The love we have for one another supersedes any pandemic.”

Brandeis Tullos of Oakhurst Baptist Church sang “Blessed Assurance” in remembrance of her grandfather, who passed away at 89 years old of COVID-19 in October. He would have been 90 this week, Tullos said.

When speaking with Decaturish, Mayor Garrett called the event “sobering” and noted that some of the deceased were close to her age, or the age of her elderly parents. Garrett hopes that Decatur residents will come by to observe the exhibit, regardless of their faith traditions.

Rev. Dougherty feels that one of the most important messages of the exhibit was the signs bordering the lawn that listed statistics that put certain Georgians at risk. “In the next pandemic,” said Dougherty, “How can we lift these [ideas] up? How can we save ourselves and our democracy?”

From Monday, Feb. 22 to Friday, Feb. 28, local clergy will be on the church lawn at noon and 5 p.m. for up to thirty minutes for anyone who desires to pray. 

Eight local congregations co-sponsored this event: the American Friends Service Committee, Claremont Presbyterian Church, Columbia Presbyterian Church, Decatur First Presbyterian Church, Decatur First United Methodist Church, Federation of Christian Ministries, First Baptist Church of Decatur, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Decatur, Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta, Oakhurst Baptist Church, and Oakhurst Presbyterian Church.

Reverend Paul M. Turner, Pastor James Brewer Calvert, and Reverend Diane Dougherty speak in front of First Christian Church of Decatur on Sunday, February 21. Photo by Alex Brown

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed one of the churches. This story has been updated with the correct information.

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