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800 Empty Chairs: A COVID Memorial on Capitol Grounds


In a field of grass near the State Capitol building in Pierre,?more than 800?chairs will sit?empty?on Thanksgiving morning. Each represents one South Dakotan who’s died from COVID-19 since March.??

The memorial event is organized by healthcare workers, faith leaders, and others who want to remind their neighbors that the pandemic is not political. It has a human cost.??

The group Stop the Spread SD is hosting a livestream of the memorial display on its Facebook page at 10 CT on Thanksgiving morning.??

The Episcopal?Diocese of South Dakota?and the South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are supporting the event financially. Pastor Jonathan Steiner says the ELCA has more than 200 congregations across South Dakota. Every one?is?impacted in some way by the pandemic.??

“We have a lot of pastors that are just dead tired.”?

The same is true, of course, for healthcare workers. One of the event’s organizers works in healthcare. She didn’t want to use her full name?because her employer has expressed concerns for political ramifications. She says the event is to remember those lost to the virus and the people left behind: healthcare workers, clergy, funeral workers, and neighbors.??

Pastor Steiner says this event is non-political and non-partisan. He believes seeing the collection of empty chairs will give viewers a new perspective.?

“To see them all together and to remember that each chair should have a person in it. Not just a person on this field but a person at the Thanksgiving table celebrating and giving thanks and being together with their family and loved ones.”?

He says the church has always been involved with death and comforting people in mourning. But that’s not the only reason they’re supporting this event.??

“The church is also about promises that there’s something else. We’re about hope for the world.?So?although there are lots of empty chairs at Thanksgiving suppers this year, we’re also confident this is not the end. The pandemic will end.”?

The event’s livestream will feature a prayer from Pastor Matthew?Spoden?of the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Pierre.?

Jackie is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio.