The day the beast visited North Georgia’s Church at Liberty Square

Rita and Bob Hopper on their wedding day
Rita and Bob Hopper on their wedding day

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

Health officials tracked coronavirus outbreak to the house of worship

Uninvited and unseen, the beast slipped into the Church at Liberty Square on March 1. There was supposed to be a joyous occasion that day: A tribute for the retiring music minister. Hundreds of worshippers traveled from across Georgia and other states for the reunion.

As children climbed on stage to help sing “Raise a Hallelujah,” the beast lurked in the cavernous sanctuary. A dance performance followed. Politicians spoke. The service stretched for more than two hours. While the parishioners hugged goodbye, Senior Pastor Jacob King prayed that God would bless them all.

In the weeks that followed, the beast sickened many of them. State health officials have tracked one of Georgia's earliest coronavirus outbreaks to the Cartersville church, which held its service long before the disease drew the nation's full attention and prompted stay-at-home orders.

As many as 15 cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus — COVID-19 — were initially traced to Liberty Square. At least four people who attended the March 1 service or who had a loved one there have died from it, according to relatives and news media accounts. In Bartow County, where the church is located, more than 200 people have fallen ill and 15 have died.

Across the nation, other houses of worship suffered similar outbreaks. Closing their doors to the public would have been unthinkable before the pandemic, especially on the day celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. But to stop the spread of the highly contagious disease, Liberty Square joined many other churches in moving their Easter services online Sunday. Preaching from Luke 24 on an empty stage in front of rows of empty pews, King delivered a message of hope.

“Let me say to you, church, we have been through quite a lot these last few weeks,” he said. “But I am assured of one thing: Our church is due for a resurrection.”

The beast — a nickname given to the disease by journalists and others — did not discriminate at King’s church. It sickened a young elementary school principal and his wife. It afflicted a state legislator. It forced a retired Cobb County sheriff’s deputy to battle for his life. It attacked a retired college worker and killed her husband, a Vietnam War veteran. It claimed the lives of a grandmother and a church usher. Here are some of their stories.

Fighting the enemy

Clay Bentley of Rome attended the house of worship years ago when it held services at a different location and was known as the Cartersville Church of God. So he was glad to sing in the reunion choir at Liberty Square on March 1. That evening, Bentley, 59, felt sick.

“I went up the steps to go to bed and I thought I was going to die in my bedroom because I couldn’t get no breath,” said Bentley, a bearded and burly retired Cobb County sheriff’s deputy.

Bentley visited an urgent care clinic in Rome the next day. The clinic referred him to a local hospital, citing his low oxygen levels. The hospital diagnosed him with pneumonia and sent him home with medication. His condition worsened, so he returned and tested positive for COVID-19.

He fought for his life for days, feeling as if someone were lying on his chest and crushing him. His Christian faith, he said, helped him beat the beast.

“I was not going to allow the enemy to come and tell me it was over for me,” he said. “I’m telling you right now, it was my faith that got me up off of that bed.”

Bentley is regaining strength by taking incrementally longer walks through his neighborhood. Still wary of the disease, he wears latex gloves whenever he goes shopping and does not get too close to others.

“I am just really careful, even now, even though they say you ain’t got no problem with it,” he said. “I stay away from other people I don’t know and even some I do know. I keep my distance.”

‘Back with my grandma’

A Lockheed Martin retiree from Fairmount, Harold Passmore, 78, loved the church. It was his favorite place, said his granddaughter, Anna Bearden. He routinely volunteered as an usher there and worked in its food pantry.

Passmore attended services at Liberty Square on March 1 and on the following Sunday. After his last visit, he started feeling sick. He fell asleep in his car after pulling into his driveway one day. That was unlike him, Bearden said. He eventually came inside and sat in his recliner for much of the rest of the day.

“He was sitting in his chair and the sun was just beaming on his face and (my sister) said, ‘Are you just going sit there with the sun in your face?’” Bearden, 24, said. “He wouldn’t really answer our questions. When my mom got home from work, she checked his temperature and it was 103.”

Passmore visited Cartersville Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with the flu, pneumonia and COVID-19. At one point, he appeared to rally. But then he began to suffer from an irregular heart rate and chest pains. The hospital isolated him in intensive care.

“It was hard not being able to see him, especially when he was as sick as he was,” Bearden said. “My mom did get to talk to him a couple of times. And she just said he always sounded really winded.”

Bearden suspects her grandfather contracted his illness at the church, though she does not blame the house of worship. He died on March 23. His wife of 55 years, Hazel, preceded him in death.

“I think he was very confident in where he was going after he passed away,” Bearden said, “and we are happy for him because we know he is back with my grandma, and that is all he wanted.”

The gentle giant

Rita Hopper sat in the front row of the choir on March 1, singing “Send it On Down.” The choir was so big — it consisted of more than 100 singers — that Hopper, 68, was forced to share a seat with her neighbor. A friend had invited the retired Berry College dean’s assistant to visit Liberty Square that day.

Later that week, Rita began suffering from fatigue, a sore throat and tightness in her chest. She felt as if she were going to faint, so she threw herself on her bed to prevent herself from falling.

“When I came to, I got very nauseated,” she said. “And then I just broke out into chills. I was just soaking wet in a fever.”

Hopper went to the hospital, tested positive for COVID-19 and stayed in treatment for five days. Her 75-year-old husband, Bob, did not come with her to the church on March 1, though he tested positive for the disease after Rita did. Rita suspects he contracted the disease from her.

Bob stayed at the hospital overnight and then returned home the following day, hoping he could recover there. But he could not shake the beast, so he called an ambulance. Rita stayed with him as he died from complications from COVID-19 on March 28 at the hospital. She kissed his hands, spoke about their two Labradoodles and reminisced about their wedding day. She reassured him she would be OK.

The couple married about eight years ago in a beautiful ceremony in their backyard. A “gentle giant,” he stood six feet, seven inches, Rita said, and was kind and generous. Bob served in the U.S. Army and fought in the Vietnam War. Because of his experiences in the war, Bob suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which tormented him with depression and severe nightmares. For 33 years, he worked as a lab technician at Floyd Medical Center, where he passed away.

Rita’s Christian faith has helped her remain resilient. A touching gesture by her neighbors in Rome buoyed her. As her husband’s health declined in the hospital last month, neighbors gathered in Rita’s front yard to pray for her family. A minister read scripture.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “It was just a beautiful sight.”

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