Pastor Richard Counts was not in the pulpit at the First Baptist Church of Alturas on September 19. Instead, he was seated among the congregation at a church in Lakeland run by his son-in-law.
Rather than hearing his wife, Lora, play the piano during a service, as he had done for eight years in his church in Alturas, Counts heard recorded music. Lora, head of the youth program and women’s ministry at the Alturas church, had died two days earlier from COVID-19 at the age of 60.
Counts said he didn’t think he would be able to preach this Sunday morning. But he didn’t want to be absent from church. So he listened to his son-in-law, Gavin Croft, pastor of Webster Memorial Baptist Church, deliver a sermon.
âIt was very emotional, but my wife wished I was there,â Counts said. “She would be there playing the piano, if the tables were turned.”
First Baptist of Alturas is one of many churches in Polk County that have suffered pastor or leadership losses during the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic fueled by the emergence of the delta variant.
At the Lakeland Revolutionary Church, two sons of Senior Pastor Rusty Herrington will lead services following their father’s death in late August.
The Lucerne Park First Baptist Church congregation in Winter Haven is trying to continue after the death of their pastor, Reverend Charles Chatman, on August 29.
At Winter Haven Calvary Baptist Church, Pastor Ed Roberts delivered a sermon on âWhat to Do When the Bottom Falls,â last Sunday, less than seven weeks after the death of Pastor Wayne Roberts at the age of 58.
Michael Petty, mission director for the Ridge Baptist Association in Winter Haven, said COVID-19 has inflicted great suffering on churches in his organization.
âWe have had other pastors who we thought could be on this list, but they have recovered and are in the process of recovering,â Petty said. âSo he hit pretty hard. “
Counts was busy Friday preparing for a memorial service to be held Monday for Lora. The program will include the performance of her favorite anthem, “In the Garden”, and Lauren Daigle’s song “Trust in You”, which contains these lines:
Richard Counts, 61, said his wife decided not to get the COVID-19 vaccine before she fell ill
âShe didn’t get a shot,â Counts said. âI had an injection and had COVID – the same day she was diagnosed I was diagnosed and did well and she didn’t. She was up in the air because, of course, all the media – âIt’s bad for you; it’s good for you â- and she just wasn’t sure. And so we hadn’t convinced her to get it yet, but she was considering it. So she wasn’t fiercely opposed, but she hadn’t understood it yet.
Counts said he and his wife both fell ill in late August. He doesn’t think she contracted the virus at a religious event, but rather at family reunions after her granddaughter, Lily Johnson, died in a car crash on August 18 in Lakeland.
Lora Counts entered Winter Haven Hospital in early September and died after two weeks of treatment, Richard Counts said.
Lora Counts is shown with her husband, Richard Counts, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Alturas. Lora Counts recently died of COVID-19 at the age of 60. She was the church pianist and led her women’s ministry.
“His pre-existing conditions exacerbated him,” he said. âShe had very severe adult asthma. His lungs had a lot of problems from previous pneumonia and stuff like that. So she had quite a few scars in her lungs, and then when she contracted COVID, it was way too much for her to deal with. “
Croft will perform the memorial service Monday for Lora Counts.
Lora’s death added to the existing grief for her family, still facing Johnson’s death at the age of 20.
Jackie Johnson, one of the Earls’ seven children, lost her daughter and mother within a month and will now be raising Lily’s two toddlers.
A colleague succumbs
Richard Counts knows it’s not the only local church to suffer a COVID-related death. He said the virus recently claimed two members of Croft’s congregation at Webster Memorial Baptist Church.
Counts said First Baptist of Alturas has seen attendance drop from about 45 before the pandemic to 15 or 20 in recent weeks. He said his church took the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
âWe have hand sanitizer at the front door, masks and hand sanitizer, and we put it (health tips) in our church bulletin, but you have occasional people who won’t wear mask, âhe said. âI cannot kick them out of the church; I don’t think that’s what the Lord would do. The Lord went to sinners – the tax collector, the harlots. I’m not sure he would kick out someone who wasn’t wearing a mask.
Chatman, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lucerne Park, contracted COVID-19 over the summer and had in fact been released from the hospital, Petty said. He planned to resume preaching three weeks later, but the church deacons suggested taking a little longer to recuperate.
While recovering at home, Chatman apparently suffered from a blood clot and died on August 29. Blood clots are a common complication of COVID-19.
Even local churches that have not suffered fatalities have been severely weakened by the effects of COVID, Petty said. The Ridge Baptist Association included 63 churches before the pandemic, he said.
âWe have churches that haven’t reopened, and there might be a possibility that some churches will never reopen,â he said. âSo in that regard it has taken its toll. “
Petty said some churches have lost their sites amid COVID restrictions. He cited SURV Church, which is no longer able to meet in the cafeteria at Winter Haven Christian School.
“Attendance at churches that have reopened has been pretty hard hit,” Petty said. âEven with protocols in place – we’ve had churches that had a completely separate room, a chapel or something, installed, mandatory masks, strict restrictions on social distancing, and even then people hesitated. to come back. “
The family trial
On August 19, Rusty Herrington posted on the church’s Facebook page: âDue to uncontrollable circumstances, the Revolutionary Church will be closed for two weeks.
Several members of Herrington’s family have contracted COVID, including his wife, Angel Herrington, according to posts on the church’s Facebook page. In a series of messages, Herrington’s adult daughter, Nikki Herrington-Poe, provided an update on her father, mother, Angel Herrington, and aunt, Virginia Meggers, as all three were hospitalized.
At least one of Rusty Herrington’s sons, Phillip Herrington, also had to be hospitalized, according to Herrington-Poe’s Facebook posts.
A day before Rusty Herrington died, his daughter seemed hopeful of a recovery. An August 27 article included a video of Herrington sitting in a hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask and visibly exhausted, eyes drooping.
âToday his oxygen remains between 87 and 94,â Herrington-Poe wrote. âIt’s still low BUT it’s more stable. No baby. The doctor said his (signs) from yesterday were excellent, his breathing is better and he is spitting up the waste! He is in a good mood today but tired.
Rusty Herrington was 59, according to public records. When Herrington-Poe reported her father’s death the next day, she wrote that her mother was in the hospital and had not allowed visitation.
Three days later, she posted a video showing her mother coming home after being released from the hospital. Three days later, on September 4, Herrington-Poe wrote that Meggers, his aunt, had died. She was 69 years old.
None of the social media posts indicated whether any family members had been vaccinated.
The wires take over
Russell Harwell, chairman of the church’s board, posted a video statement on the Facebook page on September 2. He said the church would remain closed the following Sunday but would resume services on September 12.
âRusty was a great friend, mentor and leader to all of us,â said Harwell, whose wife, Cara, is listed as a worship pastor. âHe leaves a void that will be difficult to fill. It will not be reproduced.
Harwell added, âThere is still a lot of healing going on and some are still sick. I would ask you to continue to raise this family in your prayers and remember those who are still fighting this terrible virus. “
A celebration of the life of Rusty Herrington is scheduled for October 2 at the church. Herrington entered the ministry in 1988 and was ordained a priest five years later by the South Florida Baptist Association, according to a biography posted on the church’s website. He became senior pastor of the Church of the Revolution in 2014.
Photos on the church’s Facebook page show Herrington posing on a motorbike parked at Deals Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A GoFundMe campaign has been created with the title âHelp for the Herrington Familyâ with the goal of raising $ 10,000. As of Friday afternoon, $ 5,051 had been paid.
The Revolutionary Church is part of the Early Methodist Church in the United States, a small denomination with only three churches in Florida. Pastor Fred Perkins of New River Church in Wesley Chapel, the leader of the district that includes Florida, said he had met with Revolution Church trustees to determine the way forward. He said the church has around 50 worshipers.
A guest pastor managed the services after they resumed, but Perkins said Herrington’s sons, Phillip and Ryan, planned to become co-pastors. He expects the brethren to sign up for training with the denomination. Ryan used to be a youth pastor, Perkins said.