At a Thanksgiving ceremony, 849 empty chairs symbolize the toll of COVID-19 on South Dakota

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — There was a lonely chill to the overcast morning as Pastor Matthew Spoden began his prayer shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday before row upon row of seats with no one to fill them.

Eight hundred, forty nine empty chairs, to be exact — the number of South Dakotans who had died, to that point, from COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.

Behind him was the black dome of the South Dakota Capitol. The Resurrection Lutheran Church pastor had come to help send a Thanksgiving message: Stop the spread, South Dakota.

“Give these families peace,” Spoden said, calling on God. “Our bodies, minds and spirits have been battered and broken because of this pandemic. May your hand guide everyone involved in finding ways to end this pandemic, so we can swiftly and safely return to being in close connection with one another.”

The South Dakota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and The Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota financially supported the event in Hilger’s Gulch.

A livestream at StopTheSpreadSD’s page on Facebook showed the temporary memorial and donations were welcomed.

An organizer said more chairs would be added if the death toll rose, but state Health Department officials decided they wouldn’t release new numbers on Thanksgiving.

Two South Dakota Highway Patrol vehicles alternated watching from a distance. They likely were the only state government presence. No one from Governor Kristi Noem’s administration was seen. The governor has resisted calls for her to require masks. She has declined to place restrictions on businesses and has let local school boards decide on how to hold classes.

Pastor Spoden prayed for the living as well as those who lost their lives.

“We are all hurting, oh God. We especially lift up our health care workers, who are being stretched to their limits. May you protect them and let them find time to rest from the overwhelming amount of work that they have to do, as well as funeral directors, workers and clergy for wrestling with constant death,” he said.

“We lift up our loved ones who are isolated in nursing homes, or who live alone, for the mental and emotional stress of constant isolation is overwhelming. God, help them find connection, even if it’s as simple as a phone call, so that they can be comforted in knowing that they are loved and remembered.”

He added, “My heart goes out to all of you who have lost loved ones and are missing them so deeply this day. I’m sorry that you have to go through such pain, sadness and anger. I wish I could comfort you. I wish I had the right words, but nothing I say or do can ever replace the presence of the ones you cherish and love.”

Several tribal members from Pine Ridge and Crow Creek who weren’t part of the program came. The woman placed ceremonial tobacco throughout the chairs while the man drummed and sang in Lakota. The two later joined voices in another Lakota song.

After his prayer, Pastor Spoden said the pain, frustration and despair that have been experienced are valid and all of it needs to be recognized.

“I have hope that the future will be better. I have hope that we can overcome the divisions among us. I have hope that within our hearts is an inferno of compassion that enables us to love our neighbor,” he said.

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