Survivors of COVID-19 urge fellow Christians to take the virus seriously
It was the worst, Tim Pyles said, he has ever…
Vanessa Hawkins was worried.
It was early March, and her sister, Crystaline Kuykendall, had been ill with a variety of symptoms. When Hawkins called to check on her, Kuykendall said she couldn’t remember the previous two days.
“I could barely hear what she was saying, so I called EMS and sent them to her house,” said Hawkins, the secretary for the Oakland Church of Christ in Southfield, Mich.
Coronavirus cases were just beginning to pop up in Michigan, and when Kuykendall had tried to get tested, she was sent home since she was not running a fever at the time. Once at the hospital, she tested positive and declined quickly. Because of the COVID-19 risk, Hawkins could not visit her sister, and when she tried talking to her on the phone, she could not understand her.
Finally, Kuykendall’s son was allowed to visit. Kuykendall was placed on a ventilator with the hopes that she would begin responding to medication and improve. But on April 2, after an 11-day hospital stay, and despite her doctors’ best efforts, she died. Her death was one of 80 attributed to COVID-19 in Michigan that day, but to Hawkins and Kuykendall’s other loved ones, she was not just a number. She was a cherished sister, mother and friend. Hawkins credits her Oakland church family with surrounding her family with prayers and support.
“It’s a very close-knit family here,” Hawkins said of the congregation of about 300 in the north Detroit area.
The COVID-19 outbreak has touched the congregation in a profound way.
“Things were rough there for a while,” minister Edward Cribbs said.
A number of the Oakland flock in addition to Hawkins lost family members, and members Eric and Sherry Beasley were both infected.
Sherry’s case did not require hospitalization, but Eric’s was particularly brutal. He spent eight days on a ventilator and 64 total days in the hospital. Now, to relearn how to walk, Eric is in physical therapy — something that had to be delayed since his insurance lapsed after he was off work for so long.
Before Eric got sick, he was tempted to think COVID-19 was a hoax because he didn’t know anyone who had it. But by the time he went to the hospital, he was admitted with 40 other people. And out of those 40, only he and one other patient survived.
“There were people who prayed for me throughout my ordeal who still won’t wear a mask,” Eric said. “All of those deaths were real people. They were all someone’s loved one.”
“All of those deaths were real people. They were all someone’s loved one.”
Oakland’s leadership has worked tirelessly to support members who have been deeply affected by COVID-19. The day Eric was released, he rolled out the doors of the hospital in his wheelchair to see a group of Oakland members holding signs and balloons and cheering for him. Church members also surrounded those who haven’t been sick themselves but still carry the weight of the pandemic. Some churchgoers lost family members to something other than COVID-19 but still had to have funerals with no more than 10 people to comply with state mandates regulating gatherings.
“I performed half of one funeral service with 10 family members and the other half with another 10 family members because it was a large family,” Cribbs said.
And some members were exhausted from working on the front lines of the pandemic, including a funeral director who has conducted as many as six funerals some days. He told of bodies being stored on freezer trucks because the morgues had run out of room.
To maintain fellowship throughout this ordeal, the Oakland church has made the most of technology by using mass emails and texts so members know daily who to pray for. The congregation’s five elders divided the membership into five zones to make sure everyone’s needs were covered.
And after two months of no Sunday services, Oakland has begun meeting again — in the church parking lot. Cribbs or another Oakland leader preaches from a podium while members watch the live service through Facebook or YouTube from inside their cars.
“Horn honking has replaced amens,” Cribbs said. “We’ve gotten accustomed to this new normal.”
The “new normal” is what many churches have had to adjust to since mid-March.
At the Broken Arrow Church of Christ in Broken Arrow, Okla., every other row of chairs is gone to allow for 6 feet of space between rows. Since the congregation resumed meeting in person on May 31, family groups sit together with empty chairs on either side of each group.
“If they’re not ready to come back, they need to stay home.”
Doors are held open on Sunday mornings so members don’t have to touch door handles. Communion is served in self-contained, disposable packaging. Still, only about half the membership shows up at the building on Sundays.
“And that’s a good thing,” said minister Tim Pyles. “If they’re not ready to come back, they need to stay home.”
Among other precautions, the Broken Arrow church takes an extra step: After services begin, photos are taken of where everyone is sitting in case someone ends up testing positive later.
The photos can show where the person was sitting and with whom they were in close proximity. Pyles and his membership take these precautions so seriously for good reason. He and his son, 27-year-old Coleman, tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-March, which was very early in the pandemic for Oklahoma.
“Our illnesses were so early,” Pyles said. “The pandemic in this part of the country was still somewhere else in people’s minds. But it got here real quick when Coleman and I were diagnosed.”
As the father and son recovered, the congregation focused on drawing closer together, communicating daily and serving others.
“Relationships have been established between people who didn’t know each other before this happened,” Pyles said. “Rather than just having offerings of classes on Sunday and Wednesday, we started classes on Facebook and YouTube and Zoom throughout the week. I started sending out a Daily Bread email with a Scripture or encouraging thought. I had never done that before. We also had a COVID task force with college kids who had come home. They made grocery runs.”
“There was no drill for this and no textbook … no lectureship entitled ‘How to Lead your Church through a Global Pandemic.’”
Although Pyles and his son have recovered, some symptoms make unexpected appearances before disappearing again. Coleman continues to suffer from fatigue, and Pyles was so unnerved by his returning night sweats that he was tested for COVID-19 again. But the result was negative this time. So he continues leading his church through an unprecedented global event that hit very close to home.
“There was no drill for this and no textbook,” he said. “No lectureship entitled ‘How to Lead your Church through a Global Pandemic.’ But this has heightened our sense of our identity.
“It reminded us of who we are as disciples of Jesus and children of God,” he added. “It increased our appreciation and value of being able to assemble. I know all of us had taken that for granted because we had always met. To have been deprived of that, for good reason and by circumstances beyond our control, people longed to see each other again. We were reminded why God made us to need community and fellowship and encouragement.”
For the Summit View Church of Christ in Yakima, Wash., in-person services resumed July 12. That only lasted one week before the area’s infection rate prompted the government to rescind permission for religious groups to gather.
The state’s nursing homes became a COVID-19 hotspot early in the pandemic, and the congregation had two members in nursing homes who caught the virus but made full recoveries.
“None of our members have passed away from it, for which we are very grateful,” said minister Kevin Jensen.
Church secretary C.J. Catt said the lack of socializing among members has been difficult both emotionally and spiritually.
“There are a lot of widows in our congregation, so being alone without the normal contact has really emphasized their being isolated, Catt said.
The church has tried to fill this void by organizing a calling tree, in which at least once a month everyone who participates calls members assigned to them, Catt said.
“This helps you feel they are not alone, but we also assess their needs and if we can help in any way,” Catt explained. “We then route the concerns to one of our deacons to assist them, or he finds someone in the congregation who can help as well. We switch names around so we end up talking to different people. Some of them we don’t know very well, but this is helping us to connect with each other.”
In areas where case numbers continue to spike, many churches are still meeting online only.
This is the case for the Church of Christ on McDermott Road in Plano, Texas. Plans to begin outdoor services at the building on July 5 were sidelined when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on people meeting in large groups, said minister Wes McAdams.
“Churches were exempt from that, but we still didn’t believe it was wise to meet in person,” McAdams said.
At this congregation of about 1,000 members, keeping children engaged during this time has been no easy task, said Rosalyn Miller, children’s education coordinator.
“We have tried to be creative and watch what others are doing too for inspiration,” she said. “We offer a combination of Zoom Bible classes and Bible lessons videos for our children. We have also engaged families with an online Family Challenge Bible Series and a Craft Thursday Pickup event, as well as a summer T-shirt and gift that each family could pick up.” Children’s ministry and youth ministry interns also work to engage with the congregation’s youth.
Technology has helped keep families connected throughout the uncertainty of the pandemic. Mikie Kindsfather, children’s education coordinator, said engaging with families during online services has made a difference.
“Families were encouraged to send in a photo, and those were compiled into a touching video shared during an online worship service,” she said. “We received a lot of feedback about how great it was to ‘see’ each other.”
While congregations early in the pandemic might have looked forward to getting back to normal, the reality is setting in that what was formerly “normal” could be a thing of the past. And this means those suffering a profound sense of loss must rely on faith and hope to go on.
When Hawkins’ sister died, the family could not gather at the funeral home with friends and fellow church members as in the pre-pandemic days.
“We couldn’t go to the cemetery because cemeteries weren’t allowing families,” she said. “We went to the funeral home for a few minutes, and then we went back to the car. There weren’t even any chairs in the funeral home.”
So how can someone process grief when it seems as though grief was never allowed to begin?
In Hawkins’ case, she sits down every week and writes her sister a letter.
“I didn’t really get to talk to her when she was in the hospital, so I just tell her how I’m feeling,” Hawkins said. “We just keep praying and trusting in God.”
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