SALEM — By Easter, the worst appeared to be over for Salem First Church of the Nazarene, but the several weeks preceding were scary and difficult for the congregation because of COVID-19.
As reported in a lengthy story on SalemReporter.com, 10 members of the church, 1550 Market St. N.E., tested positive for the virus and two died from it. With each passing day, Executive Pastor Jerry Morris grew to dread the updates on how the church family was impacted.
One of the first affected was Joshua Lindley, 39, Having just returned from a trip to Arkansas, he felt tired attending the church’s March 8 service but assumed it was simply due to traveling.
It was at that service that Bill Carr, interim lead pastor, had Lindley announce that the congregation was temporarily stopping handshakes, a precauation to limit any spread of the virus which was just then taking hold in Oregon.
Within a week, Lindley was seriously ill. His energy was gone and he was fighting to breathe after walking just a few feet. A doctor at an urgent care clinic sent him home with antibiotics, suspecting Lindley had a kidney infection.
Meanwhile, public life was rapidly shutting down around Salem and all of Oregon, and on March 11, Gov. Kate Brown banned gatherings larger than 250 people. Salem First Nazarene holds two services on Sunday, each with 200 to 300 people, and church leaders began discussions on shutting down the campus.
That evening, Morris himself started feeling ill with fever, aches and shortness of breath. Several days later his wife Cathi had similar symptoms. By March 14, the church board voted to close the campus, and although still sick, Morris set up a ministry care team to check in regularly by video or phone calls with families in the congregation.
Lindley continued to be sick and got a referral for a COVID-19 test. Around the same time, others in the church family were fallling ill, including board member Steve Betschart, who began feeling sick around March 15. He, too, was tested for the virus and awaited the results.
On March 21, Morris learned that a longtime church member was in Salem Hospital and had tested positive for COVID-19. Morris was accustomed to visiting those who were seriously ill, but the hospital banned nearly all visitors starting March 16.
On March 22, Carr shared a message of hope and comfort during that morning’s service, which by now was held not in-person, but online. It was a timely and needed message, because that day two more from the congregation were hospitalized — Lindley and Betschart, the latter in dire condition. Betschart was put on a ventilator shortly after being admitted, and later that day his heart stopped; doctors and nurses revived him with CPR.
With many of the church family older than 60 and living in retirement homes, Morris feared these three in the hospital with the virus were only the beginning. He was still sick himself, having trouble breathing, and was on antibiotics for pneumonia but was never tested for COVID. He told his wife that he didn’t want to go to the hospital for fear that he wouldn’t ever see her again.
Meanwhile, Ruth and Roy Hall, ages 78 and 79 respectively, experienced various symptoms, including fatigue, aching muscles, little appetite and a cough. To try to get better, they went to their beach house in Lincoln City.
But the virus progressed within the congregation. On March 25, an 82-year-old woman became the first from Salem First Nazarene to die from COVID. The following day, two more with the virus were hospitalized, including Roy Hall, who had not improved at the beach. His wife of 56 years was not allowed to stay with him at the hospital. She learned later that had indeed been infected with the virus, but recovered at home. As she prayed for her husband, word about the Halls’ situation spread beyond Salem, with other Nazarene churches joining in those also praying.
Lindley, who had been sick for a month, spent five days in the hospital before his release March 26. He didn’t require a ventilator while there, but did receive supplemental oxygen.
Hall, who had been near death, improved to the point that he was released April 3 from the hospital to continue his recovery at home. But Betschart, still at the hospital, was not recovering. His condition worsened with pneumonia and multiple infections and the doctor said his body was shutting down. His family agreed to take him off the ventilator and leave the rest to God.
One by one, relatives called Betschart to say their last goodbyes as nurses set the phone on his shoulder. With life supports removed, Beschart died April 2. At the time of his passing, the Dallas resident was the only COVID-19 fatality from Polk County.
By the time Easter arrived, those who were still ill seemed to be recovering, and only one church member remained in the hospital with COVID-19, said Morris.
The newspaper story noted that for now, as the pandemic continues, the families affected can’t gather in person to share experiences. But those touched by the virus say it has underscored the importance of faith and the role that church and community play in their lives.