Many of the 100 or so people who attended the COVID-19 community memorial service Sunday afternoon on the Bulloch County Courthouse square were remembering a specific family member or friend who died of the illness during the past 12 months.
The 111 small wooden crosses on the lawn had been put there in honor of the 111 Bulloch County residents whose deaths had been attributed, as of Sunday, to the novel coronavirus. Bulloch's first death from COVID-19 had been reported exactly 365 days earlier, on April 11, 2020.
About half a dozen members of the family of Janie Staggs, who passed away Dec. 26 at age 84, sat in one corner of the outdoor assembly facing the courthouse.
"It was really hard. She had a lot of health issues, but unfortunately she contracted it while she was in the hospital,” said her daughter, Donna McElveen, who was sitting beside her father, Bobby Staggs.
Back in early January, a private, family service was held at Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Glennville for Mrs. Staggs, who had served briefly in the U.S. Navy and then traveled across the nation with her husband during his longer Navy career.
But Sunday’s community service was an acknowledgment by those who planned it that her mother and the other 110 individuals were more than a statistic, McElveen said in a brief interview before it began.
"It's very nice that they've gone out of their way to help us, you know, find another way to honor her, because we weren't really able to do that during the funeral process because of all the restrictions,” she said.
The Statesboro Ministerial Association, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and Statesboro’s city government hosted the service. City Councilwoman Shari Barr, giving the welcome, thanked them all, and the Statesboro Fire Department personnel who made and erected the crosses and an American Sign Language-certified interpreter who turned the speeches, prayers and songs into visual meaning.
Giving the opening prayer, the Rev. Taylor Lewis Guthrie Hartman of First Presbyterian Church said that God who knows number of stars in the sky knows the moment each of those 111 persons’ last breath and is always the first to welcome his beloved.
"May we count today one among many to remember our loved ones who have met you as a result of COVID-19," she prayed. "May our thanksgiving for their lives and for your grace embracing us... be beyond measure.”
Bonnie and Richard Spires were seated near Becky Holmes and Charles Perry. One of the individuals they were thinking of was Pierce Dickens, the Statesboro First United Methodist Church choir director and organist who held a doctorate in musical arts and taught at Georgia Southern University and previously at Brewton Parker College.
Dickens was only 60 when he died Jan. 9.
"He had talent like you wouldn't believe, incredible talent. …," said Bonnie Spires, who had sung in the choir with him. “It doesn't feel like he's gone. He was such an exuberant, talented person. It's still hard to believe, hard to believe.”
Holmes was remembering more than one person who passed away because of COVID-19 or its complications.
“Just being here is just a type of closure, with so many people that we've lost,” she said. “I've got three friends that I've lost within the last three months.”
With so many, the officials and faith leaders who spoke during the service didn’t attempt to single people out for remembrance by name.
"These are individuals that will forever have a piece of our hearts, and I think that the greatest way that we can pay tribute to those souls that we have lost over the past 365 days will be most telling in how we treat each other,” Mayor Jonathan McCollar said.
But Americans often did not treat each other well during the year, he observed.
“Statesboro, if we don't know anything else after these 365 days, we know that we are stronger together, we are better together, and together we can overcome anything,” McCollar said.
Chairman Roy Thompson of the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners had the other six commissioners stand up front while he spoke, behind a transparent screen like all of the other presenters. Everyone wore a mask if not behind a screen.
"I say this to y'all out here that have someone represented over there by one of these crosses: Cherish the memories,” Thompson said. “ We don't know why COVID started, we don't know when it's going to end, but we do know one thing, this is the day that the Lord hath made, let us rejoice in it. For certain, working together and praying together, all things are possible, especially the end of COVID."
Touches of faith
Elder Chris Deloach, standing in for his wife Pastor Lisa Deloach of City of David Worship Assembly, read passages from John 14, beginning, “Let not your heart be troubled. …”
Pastor Donald Chavers of Agape Worship Center sang, “Previous Lord, Take My Hand,” behind one screen, while interpreter Robin Fowler performed it in American Sign Language behind the other.
Hartman recited Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. ..."
Eric Garside of the Buddhist organization Statesboro Sangha read from the text, "The Contemplation of No-Coming and No-Going." Part of it is, “Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey. ... We meet today. We will meet again tomorrow.”
Chase Boatright sang “Amazing Grace” and invited everyone to join in. Then Barr led the group in the Lord’s Prayer.
Closing the service, the Rev. Scott Hagan, pastor of First United Methodist Church, prayed, "Give us the grace to remember those names and lives we honor today. Let us be silent so that we might hear. …"
The bell tolls
A bell tolled 12 times. It was actually a recording of bells at First United Methodist, replayed on a sound system nearer the courthouse. Organizers planned for the bell to ring once for each 10 individuals, then went from 11 to 12 tolls when the official total of Bulloch COVID-19 deaths rose Saturday from 110 to 111.
Cynthia Cone-Dekle, Ph.D., was thinking of her father, lifelong Bulloch County resident Ed Foy Cone, who died Jan. 29 at age 88.
"It meant a lot to reflect on, not only his life, but the lives of all who went through the COVID experience and the families to be able to share together just the blessings of hearing the songs, the scriptures, just meant a lot,” Cone-Dekle said after the service. “It brought a lot of peace to me and I'm sure to all the families that are here."