Worshippers donned masks as they arrived at the Church at Liberty Square Sunday. They refrained from shaking hands or hugging. Staying six feet apart, they lined up to enter the sanctuary in stages.
Just walking inside was an act of faith.
Their church reopened its sanctuary for Sunday services for the first time since closing its doors in March following a deadly coronavirus outbreak there.
The church prayed for an end to the stubborn pandemic, which has stripped millions of Americans of their jobs, sickened nearly 2 million across the country and killed about 110,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta projected Thursday the death toll could reach as high as 143,000 by June 27.
The predominantly white church also prayed for an end to another plague afflicting America — racism — following the killings of two unarmed black men in Minnesota and Georgia, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
Senior Pastor Jacob King delivered an uplifting sermon, referring to the pandemic as well as the protests that have convulsed Atlanta and cities across the nation in the wake of Floyd and Arbery’s violent deaths. He quoted from Psalm 34: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.”
“We have been down a long and a winding road. It has been quite a journey,” King said, “but I want to say that you and I are living witnesses today that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church that the Lord Jesus Christ is building.”
King spoke moments after Tom Madden, the administrative bishop for the Church of God in North Georgia, forcefully called racism a sin.
“Just about the time we come through this pandemic, what happens? Now the awful sin of racism — and that is what it is,” he said.
“I pray today against a spirit of racism that has come against our nation and come against our world,” Madden continued. “We speak against it today in the name of Jesus. I pray today that healing will take place in this community, take place in this nation today.”
As many as 100 worshippers who attended Feb. 29 and March 1 events at the church tested positive for COVID-19 and four have died from it, according to state public health officials who briefed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on their investigation of the outbreak. They weren’t able to determine its source. But they said the large number of people singing in the choir there on March 1 could have contributed to its spread.
“It is probably one of the largest outbreaks in Northwest Georgia in our health district,” said Dr. Gary Voccio, who leads the Georgia Department of Public Health’s northwest district, which covers Bartow and nine other counties.
Among the church’s worshippers who were sickened are a young elementary school principal and his wife, a state legislator, a retired Cobb County sheriff’s deputy and a retired college worker. It claimed the lives of a grandmother, a church usher and a U.S. Army veteran.
The church is located in Bartow County, where 522 people have tested positive for the disease and 39 have died from it. On March 20, Bartow ranked third among Georgia counties for the highest total of illnesses at 40. As of Sunday afternoon, it ranked 18th.
Voccio credited the work of the church and local health and medical officials in fighting the spread of the disease
“The message of social distancing and hand-washing, sanitation and facemask-wearing… has been really taken to heart in that community,” he said.
Church officials have consulted with local, state and federal health agencies and are opening their house of worship in phases. They have also sanitized their building and brought in a company that specializes in tackling environmental contaminants.
“Many people in our community and especially our church were affected by COVID-19 and several died,” King said in an email. “Our hearts have been broken for their loss and for ours. Once more of our members are able to return to morning worship, we plan on recognizing and memorializing those who have passed away in our church throughout this pandemic. That date will be soon but has not yet been finalized.”
Elizabeth Wells, 65, a former Wellstar Health System worker from Rome, was among those who died from COVID-19 after attending the March 1 church service. Her daughter, Hilary New, said she wants to organize a memorial service for her at the Church at Liberty Square but has decided to hold off on the planning until threats from the pandemic pass.
“The risk [to] our family is very high,” New said in a text message, “so at this time I am going to wait.”
On Sunday, volunteers stood in front of the church holding signs declaring: “So Glad You’re Here,” “Welcome Home,” and “You’re Looking Amazing.”
Linny Dew, 67, a church elder from Cartersville, was among the first worshippers to show up. He donned a red University of Georgia facemask for the occasion. A benefits advisor for Aflac, Dew spent five days recovering from COVID-19 in the hospital. He believes he contracted his illness after attending a Feb. 29 banquet and choir rehearsal at the church. Many of the same people from that event returned to the church the following day for a tribute for the retiring music minister.
Dew suffered from a fever, hives broke out all over his body and he experienced shortness of breath. Calling the ordeal “scary,” Dew said it was the first time he had been hospitalized since he was born. He attributes his survival to his Christian faith and the kindness and support of family and friends. Dew got emotional talking about returning to the Church at Liberty Square Sunday.
“I am fortunate because I survived,” he said. “I lost very close, dear friends that I have gone to church with for the last 25 years. I have been a part of this community since we moved here. It’s like your extended family.”
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