Decatur churches plant 15,000 white flags to mourn Georgia’s COVID-19 dead

Francis Drenner (left) and his twin sister, Margaret, plant some of the 15,000 flags on the lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur on Saturday. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Francis Drenner (left) and his twin sister, Margaret, plant some of the 15,000 flags on the lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur on Saturday. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

On Saturday, a crowd of volunteers gathered on the lawn outside the First Christian Church of Decatur and planted tiny white flags on a field of green.

Each flag represented a person, now gone.

They planted them in quadrants, 16 feet on each side, 1,000 flags in each 16-foot square.

There were fifteen squares in all. Fifteen thousand flags. The day began cool but sunny, and the freshening breeze stirred the tiny banners, like whitecaps on a grassy lake.

Fifteen thousand deaths are difficult to imagine. The crowd of flickering pennants attached a physical image to the statistic.

(On Sunday the Georgia Department of Public Health reported a total of 14,633 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and 16,744 total deaths including those in which COVID-19 was the “probable” cause. It is likely the confirmed deaths will cross the 15,000 mark within a few days. Also on Sunday, Feb. 21, the nationwide death toll topped 500,000.)

The mood Saturday, Feb. 20, was a mixture of sadness and cheer. “I’ve got to see my peeps!” said an excited Carol Adams, as she sought out other volunteers from her Oakhurst Baptist congregation, one of 10 churches involved in the project.

Adams’ church, like many, is conducting services online. “I would bet for a lot of these folks it’s the first time they’ve seen each other – physically – since the pandemic began,” said the Rev. James Brewer-Calvert, of First Christian.

In the absence of funerals, Saturday’s exercise was a way for many of these volunteers to gather, to honor those who have died and to meditate on the terrible wound that the pandemic has inflicted on the community.

About 48 volunteers from 10 churches turned First Christian Church of Decatur, into a miniature Flanders Field, with row after row of white flags. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
About 48 volunteers from 10 churches turned First Christian Church of Decatur, into a miniature Flanders Field, with row after row of white flags. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“If we can provide a place for a prayer walk, a place for grief and grieving, so be it,” said Brewer-Calvert, as volunteers pushed the wire stems of the flags into the soft ground.

“Grief is good,” Brewer-Calvert added. “Grief is a gift of God. It helps us remember those we’ve lost.”

Certainly every member of Saturday’s group had been touched by the pandemic. Last March, Brewer-Calvert lost a friend his age, who he’d known since seminary.

Tim Franzen of the American Friends Service Committee, who helped organize the event, said three of his friends have died, including a 33-year-old activist who died this month.

“As we approach a time in Georgia where almost everybody knows somebody who has passed, the emotional impact is heavy,” said Franzen.

“We’re trying to create a real visual demonstration of the human and economic impact of the pandemic, but also to create a mourning experience, a public mourning space that is safe and outdoors.”

Franzen and his colleague, Diane Dougherty, who describes herself as a Catholic priest, though unacknowledged by the church, staged a similar demonstration Jan. 3 at Piedmont Park, when the dead numbered 10,000.

On that day, there were only six volunteers planting 10,000 flags. They had permission to leave the flags up for only one day, and by the time they’d finished installing them, it was time to start pulling them up.

Now, in less than two month’s time, there are 5,000 more flags to plant. This time the flags will stay up for a week. Each day at noon and 5 p.m. different religious leaders will lead prayers with those gathered at the site, at 601 West Ponce de Leon Ave.

First Christian sits on a gentle rise on the western edge of Decatur’s downtown, and its lawn is tilted like a well-placed billboard toward the traffic on Ponce de Leon.

Kathy Morse helps plant flags to represent the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia. The display served as a "public mourning space" said organizer Tim Franzen. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Kathy Morse helps plant flags to represent the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia. The display served as a "public mourning space" said organizer Tim Franzen. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Our goal is to not just have conversations about those who have died but to talk about the causes,” said Dougherty. “What has caused 16,000 Georgians to die, and how can we change that?”

Lack of leadership has aggravated the disaster, said Dougherty. To begin with, she said, the state needs to concentrate on providing vaccinations in lower-income neighborhoods, in communities of color, and for teachers who teach in those communities.

Also, it is imperative for the state’s leaders to take the pandemic seriously, said State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat from Avondale, who attended with her 2-year-old twins.

Josh Woodruff, an emergency room physician at Piedmont Hospital, has dealt with COVID-19 for the past year. As he planted flags with his 4-year-old son, Jonah, he said that despite the solemn occasion, numbers in Georgia seem to be looking better. “It looks like the worst part is over,” he said. “Of course I’ve said that two times already.”

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