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‘We all need a vacation after this.’ Local pastors share challenges of supporting members who have lost loved ones to COVID-19
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First Baptist Church holds an Ash Wednesday service in the evening outdoors in front of the Green Street lawn. The church also lit luminaries in memory of the Hall County residents who have lost their lives due to COVID-19. The church had an indoor service earlier in the day. - photo by Scott Rogers

When people are grieving, a hug or gentle touch can offer the most powerful form of comfort. 

Jeremy Shoulta, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville, said not being able to provide a physical presence for their congregation has proved the biggest challenge for many pastors during the pandemic. Like other churches in Hall County, Shoulta said a “significant number” of his members have either died from COVID-19 or lost someone to the virus. 

As a pastor, one of his roles is to walk alongside them in their grief.

“Every minister in every church is doing their absolute best right now,” Shoulta said. “They’re doing it because they’re called, and they love the people of Gainesville. It’s a trying time for all of us.”

To reach those struggling with the loss of a loved one, Shoulta said he has shared the responsibility among his staff to regularly call people and offer words of comfort through handwritten cards or notes. 

While he is unable to provide a number of those in his church who have died from COVID-19, Shoulta said the days between Thanksgiving and late January were the roughest for his congregation in terms of death and illness. He said his church has between 400-700 active members.

On Ash Wednesday this year, the First Baptist Church held an outdoor service where luminaries were lit for each person who died in Hall from COVID-19. 

“The staff wanted to do that for the congregation and for the community as a way to signify our prayers for those in the community who have lost someone,” Shoulta said, “but to also remind each other the light of the individual we lost in the past year will continue to shine in our lives. That’s an important thing for us to remember in a year where there has been so much sickness and death.”

At Lakewood Baptist Church, Senior Pastor Tyler Smiley said his congregation has lost several of its members to death from COVID-19, but he can’t be sure about the exact number. 

As a pastor, Smiley said he feels the weight of wanting to personally reach out to everyone in his church navigating grief or hurting. With the help of his team, he has been able to make sure those individuals receive spiritual and emotional care.

Each day, he said several of the church’s deacon ministers and small group leaders call a member grieving the loss of a loved one.

“We have a great congregation that really prioritizes community,” Smiley said. “Our small groups really come around for their other small group members in difficult times. The relationships and friendships of folks in our church, those are so helpful and so important when someone is grieving or hurting.”

Robert Bruce, lead pastor of McEver Road United Methodist Church, said each day of the week, except for Saturday, he makes sure that everyone in his congregation has been reached in some way. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, he sends out a devotional called a “love letter” to his members. And on Wednesdays, he provides a “sermon warmup” for people to get a sneak peak at Sunday’s service. 

“The way we’ve handled this (grief during pandemic) is we touch everybody everyday,” he said. 

Although no one in his congregation has died from COVID-19, he said many are mourning the loss of a family member or friend. To care for those people, Bruce said he and members of his staff will make regular phone or video calls and send emails to them. 

“It’s tough,” he said. “One of the things you’re always taught is that physical touch means so much. Really, all we can offer is presence and as a pastor we bring the presence of Christ. That’s hard to do in a voice or Zoom call, but people still appreciate it when you call them and grieve with them.”

A shift in funeral services

Bruce, Smiley and Shoulta said they have officiated a mix of socially distanced in-person and graveside celebration of life services, some of which were live-streamed over social media or another platform.

“Every funeral is different during the pandemic,” Smiley said. “Some families who have lost a loved one have decided to wait to do a ceremony later with the hope of something outdoors. And there’s always people wanting a small service or graveside service.”

Before the pandemic, hugging was a common sight at funerals. Over the past year, Shoulta said that hasn’t been the case. 

“The challenge of celebration of life services and times of grief in this COVID crisis is the lack of intimacy we’re able to show each other in order to keep each other safe,” Shoulta said. “That has taken a toll on individuals and families who want to share a hug or those who want to gather around a table and enjoy a meal together after a service. That has probably been the greatest struggle.”

Bruce said he spoke during a funeral via Zoom for the first time on Jan. 24, 2021, and over 100 people attended the service. Despite the lack of physical presence, he said the video offered a way for those who live at different ends of the country to pay their respects.

“The way we mourn and grieve will still be the same, but funerals are going to be different from now on,” Bruce said. 

Grieving the loss of normalcy

While people have been grieving the deaths of loved ones during the pandemic, Bruce, Smiley and Shoulta said they’re also grieving the loss of normalcy.

“We’re ready to not be fighting this battle,” Smiley said. “We’re ready to not have to feel like we have to be isolated. We’re ready to engage with the community.”

Bruce said he too has found himself on “an emotional rollercoaster ride” dealing with different challenges tied to the pandemic.

To cope with anxiety, Bruce said he keeps a spiritual devotional and writes a reflection at the end of each day. 

“My spiritual journal showed me how important daily visits with God are during this time,” he said. 

As more of his congregation receives COVID-19 vaccines and the cases begin to decline in Hall, Shoulta said pastors are noticing a light at the end of the tunnel. In February, his church even began holding in-person services again with social distancing. 

Shoulta said walking with people through tragedy and grief during the pandemic has been difficult, but it’s a road many church leaders are called to take.

“We love our congregation, we love our community and we love our lord,” Shoulta said. “And that’s why we do it. We all need a nice vacation after all this.”

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