By Sam Hodges –
The Rev. Dunford Cole was too ill with the coronavirus to help with May 31 worship services at the two churches he leads in south Alabama. But he preached anyway via Facebook from his hospital bed the next day.
Fighting for a full breath, choking back tears at times, the 45-year-old pastor of Campground and Rutledge United Methodist churches still managed to lay it on. “Y’all, let me tell you,” he said in a video post viewed more than 41,000 times. “You take care of yourself out there. This thing has been hard, and it’s been bad. And it’s as bad as they claim it to be.” Cole is doing much better and just got home from Crenshaw Community Hospital. His message is the same. “Respect this virus,” he said.
Though some churches have reopened and many are taking steps to do so, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen to about 2 million in the U.S., with 20 states seeing an increase in new cases. Also mounting are the harrowing stories of United Methodists who have been directly affected by the virus.
There have been clergy deaths, including the Rev. Rafael Luna, 61, pastor of a Hispanic United Methodist congregation in Denver; the Rev. Sherrie Dobbs Johnson, 72, a retired Greater New Jersey Conference district superintendent and wife of retired Bishop Alfred Johnson; the Rev. Norm Moyer, retired pastor in the Arkansas Conference; and the Rev. Zosimo Maputi, 67, pastor of Antipolo United Methodist Church in the Rizal Philippines Conference East.
The full extent of COVID-19 clergy and retired clergy deaths is unclear because some conferences are withholding names or cause of death because of privacy concerns and policies. That’s the case in the hard-hit New York Conference. Bishop Thomas Bickerton noted that the conference isn’t always definitively informed of a cause of death. “We estimate around a half dozen pastors and spouses have died (from the virus), and an untold number of parishioners,” he said.
United Methodist laity deaths from the coronavirus include 53-year old nursing home worker Alice Sarupinda in Walsall, England, on April 17. She was part of a Zimbabwean United Methodist congregation in England’s Midlands.
Recovery stories are, thankfully, far more common. Some are dramatic. Chris Yuen, 32, spent 20 days on a hospital ventilator and was nonresponsive much of that time. “A lot of people thought I wasn’t going to make it,” said Yuen, a member of Midland Park United Methodist Church in Midland Park, New Jersey. Yuen rallied, and was able to leave a local hospital on April 22, after almost a month there. “Several nurses and doctors lined up and gave me a cheer on the way out,” he said.
The Rev. Jennifer Stephens, associate pastor at Epiphany United Methodist Church in Loveland, Ohio, came down with the coronavirus in early April. “I’ve been extremely healthy, so it’s shocking to me that the symptoms were as bad as they were,” the 47-year-old clergywoman said. “I’m an avid runner. I eat a plant-based diet.” Stephens eventually tested positive for COVID-19 and was able to recover at home, thanks in part to house calls from a doctor and nurse in her congregation. But she’s still dealing with extreme fatigue and daily headaches, and is concerned about long-term effects.
In early March, the Rev. Kim Strong and his wife, Margo, thought they’d come down with the flu. He felt better after a few days. She felt worse. They couldn’t get her seen at urgent care centers, and they struck out trying to get a virtual visit with a doctor. On the morning of March 17, the situation grew dire. “My wife woke me up and said, ‘I think I’m dying,’” Strong said.
Strong, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Conway, South Carolina, took her to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and found to have pneumonia and a blood clot in one lung. Margo Strong, 61, battled back, and was released from the hospital after six days. “I’m very positive if we’d waited another day (to go to the hospital) she would have died,” the pastor said.
Many United Methodists who did not contract the coronavirus themselves have had a loved one who did. That’s the case with Bishop Bickerton. As he has led the New York Conference through the pandemic, the bishop has had to worry about his 84-year-old father in Florida.
Jim Bickerton tested positive for the coronavirus in a nursing home/rehabilitation center in April. Bishop Bickerton and other family members were not allowed to visit — “Heartbreaking,” the bishop said — but did have daily contact through FaceTime.
After weeks of testing positive, Jim Bickerton began to test negative. “The nursing home is all completely negative at this point,” Bishop Bickerton said. “They had 58 cases and 12 people died. For my dad to be one of the survivors is a real blessing for us as a family.”
Sam Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Gladys Mangiduyos and Eveline Chikwanah contributed.