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State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is photographed in her office at the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is photographed in her office at the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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The changes, the losses and the silver linings of a pandemic turning 1 year old

Utah’s top health official, a school principal, a funeral home owner, a restaurant owner and a pastor find hope

SALT LAKE CITY — Wearing tuxedos and long dresses, the teenagers vibrated with anticipation as they waited outside Brighton High School for a bus that would carry them to a moment years in the making.

As Tom Sherwood approached the teens, he understood he was about to break their hearts. But a mysterious new virus that had been ravaging the world was now in Utah, and state and local officials felt like gathering students — for any reason, even to sing — was a risk they couldn’t take. As the principal of Brighton High, it fell to him to deliver the news.

“They were all dressed up, waiting to get on the bus, and I had to tell them, ‘You can’t go, they canceled (the region music festival),’” Sherwood said of one of the first things he had to do after the state shut down in-person education and associated activities in April 2020.

“This was their swan song, their senior year, something they’d worked for, in most cases, for years. Those were hard conversations.”

Sherwood was not alone in having difficult conversations associated with forced changes imposed by a now yearlong pandemic that has killed nearly 1,900 Utahns and now more than 500,000 Americans. But even those who escaped sickness or losing loved ones, very little of life in Utah has been untouched by the pandemic this past year.

To mark the anniversary of the pandemic’s impact on Utah, the Deseret News talked with five Utahns about how their lives have changed because of the pandemic. Without question the challenges of the past year were painful and difficult, and every season was punctuated with loss.

But even in the most difficult challenges, there seemed to be opportunities, insights and even blessings that arose. There are positives to take from the pandemic as the state moves forward and begins another year living with the novel coronavirus.

Tom Sherwood, principal at Brighton High School, center, talks with students Jason Anderson, left, and Parker Shepherd during lunch at school in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.
Tom Sherwood, principal at Brighton High School, center, talks with students Jason Anderson, left, and Parker Shepherd during lunch at school in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the debate over the science behind the spread of a viral illness came renewed attention and support for a more robust and properly funded public health system. In the issues surrounding how to deliver education when everyone couldn’t be in the same classroom, educators found ways to adapt and accommodate situations they’d never imagined possible.

In the isolation of quarantines and stay-at-home orders, congregations found connection in technology and serving those closest to them. When the way we mourned a lost loved one was taken from us, we found new ways to express our condolences and share our grief.

The relationship between businesses and communities became one of mutual survival as customers were forced to find new ways to support restaurants, theaters and bakeries. And in turn, those businesses found new ways to express their gratitude for loyalty that made the difference between staying afloat and going out of business.

In their stories are harsh realities alongside beauty brought into focus by pain.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn listens as Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a COVID-19 press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn listens as Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a COVID-19 press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Why Dr. Angela Dunn thought about quitting

Like most in the medical profession, the state’s epidemiologist began hearing about coronavirus in December 2019. But it wasn’t until the first case was confirmed in Washington that theories became real problems in need of quick, creative and delicately executed solutions.

“That’s when we all braced for impact,” said Dr. Angela Dunn.

Until February 2020, Dunn worked in relative obscurity. Almost overnight she became the face of Utah’s fight to contain the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic forced officials to learn on the fly, adjusting practices as they learned more about how the virus spread, who is most adversely impacted and what the priorities should be.

“It’s been a constant evolution and looking at lessons learned,” she said. “The drama around testing, contact tracing and now vaccinations — they’re the same issues, just a different cohort of players from a response perspective.”

When former Gov. Gary Herbert created a coronavirus task force before the state had even a single COVID-19 case, Dunn said she was “almost giddy” because he’d collected “the perfect body of people” in what seemed to be a proactive, comprehensive approach. The group was to be led by then-Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, and it was made up of business leaders, members of the tech, faith and nonprofit communities, as well as a diverse representation of local and state political leaders.

“I was super excited,” she said. “I thought these were the right people at the table, now let’s move. ... But it wasn’t as influential as I thought it might be.”

Before the task force could find its footing, she said, it derailed.

“It felt like, overnight, that groups stopped meeting and there was another force running things,” she said, noting that the task force wasn’t making decisions, “just being informed of them.”

Those initial discussions led to some critically important public health decisions, including forming a mobile testing clinic and initiating drive-thru testing sites.

“Before we had a case, we were making those plans,” she said. “I don’t know the conversations that happened that led to that (system of planning) being pushed aside, but something happened behind closed doors, and the difference was day and night.”

Some of the greatest challenges haven’t come from the virus, she said, but rather the political climate.

“I think I’m just surprised at the politicization of facts,” Dunn said. “The constant pressure by both the Trump administration and local government ... to paint a rosy picture, to make (people) feel better. ... I think that was, at times, to the detriment of people knowing and understanding the (reality) of the situation.”

Dunn said she thought about quitting — repeatedly.

“I still do,” she said laughing. “In that March time frame, our entire health department felt like it was getting punched in the stomach every, single day.”

She said they were offering their knowledge, their expertise, “but we weren’t at the table to guide the response.”

That finally began changing in September — just before Utah began experiencing a rise of cases that would culminate in the surges of late November, December and January.

“We are really, really at the table now,” she said. “But that time in the spring and summer, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? Is there a better way I can serve the public in a different job?’”

The politicization of almost everything, including science, made a difficult job exponentially more complicated. It also made her, as well as other public health officials, a frequent target of critics.

When protesters targeted her home, she was unnerved and a little frightened, especially for her family. But, at the same time, she also understood why people took such extraordinary action.

“I’m a face, and they’re scared and frustrated,” she said. “The thing that really stresses me out is that I feel like I owe it to the public to continue because of all of the support. That’s what keeps me staying at my job.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is photographed in her office at the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is photographed in her office at the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Her guiding principle is to bring science to every discussion — public and private — surrounding public health. She is adamant that she has no political motivation. And, despite being asked a few times, she has no desire to run for political office.

“I feel like I’m that voice of science and reason,” she said, acknowledging that politicians have also had a unique set of circumstances to navigate in 2020. “It’s a hard job, and I do not want it.”

Dunn said her relationship with now-Gov. Cox has given her hope that public health officials can have honest dialogue with political leaders, who are responsible for balancing everyone’s interests and concerns in their policy decisions.

“There is something to be said for being able to give your advice openly,” she said, citing a recent conversation with Cox in which they disagreed about the action that should be taken based on advice she’d given him. “But there is freedom for open conversation.”

Dunn hopes the scrutiny on public health brought by the pandemic has underscored the importance of its role in society. Chronically underfunded, the public health system has now received attention from powerful people, which has led to hope for a more robust and inclusive system in the future.

“Never have we had so much interest in public health from politicians and businesses and economists,” she said, noting she sits on national committees and everyone is trying to figure out how to use renewed attention on public health in productive ways.

The pandemic was a harsh classroom, but Dunn said public health officials have new insight on an array of public health issues and programs, including how to address racial and socioeconomic disparities and all the ways a robust public health system benefits communities.

“It’s been a constant evolution and looking at lessons learned,” she said.

The criticism of parents

The best and worst days for Brighton High’s principal have one thing in common: parents.

“My worst days have been fielding a lot of phone calls with parents who, justifiably so, feel that whatever we’re doing is not working for their child. Their first instinct is to attack the principal. ‘You’re not doing enough,’” Sherwood said.

“Every principal I know has worked so many hours this past year, tried so hard to help kids get educated, to come to school as often as they can, to play sports, sing in the choir, have band concerts and just create as much normalcy as they can,” he said. “And that makes it hard to get those calls.”

Some of the precautions seem like small inconveniences compared to spring when everything was shut down or canceled. Still, he was shocked at how some people reacted, especially after hearing from parents how they would do anything to get children into classrooms and participating in activities.

“I was compared to (Heinrich) Himmler,” he said, a Nazi leader considered to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust.

“I had people say, ‘You’re an employee of the state; you’re being asked to violate my child’s constitutional, God-given rights.’ ... And then they’d equate me to Himmler in that he was just following orders when he sent Jews to the gas chamber. ... Seems like there is a pretty big difference between killing someone and asking someone to do something that’s supposed to keep people safe.”

Even if we eventually learn that masks didn’t offer the protection that dozens of studies have suggested they do, Sherwood said wearing them seems like such a very small sacrifice.

“What kind of trauma was really endured by having to wear masks?” he asked. Parents have sent emails, berated him in phone calls and threatened to sue him personally over the requirement to wear masks in school.

One of the most difficult and debated challenges was how to educate children.

“I think it was different in every district,” Sherwood said. “Every district decided how they dealt with remote education differently ... but it was a challenge in every district. In March kids fill out their class schedules for the fall. ... We have most of our hiring done by April. ... We thought we’d be back to normal by fall. But by the end of June, when we’re all trying to get out the door for a break, it became obvious this wasn’t something that was going to end soon.”

In a matter of weeks, it became clear this would be a year unlike any other.

“We were going to have to significantly alter how we educated students in the fall,” he said. “We had to completely redo schedules in July for the kids who were going to show up in August.”

Most districts had teachers who left the profession rather than deal with the health risks or added stress of teaching both online and in person — oftentimes in the same class of students.

“We had to come up with a new delivery system in a month, deal with personnel training, changes, technology,” Sherwood said. “It was by far the most challenging summer I think most principals have ever had.”

Most classrooms combined both online and in-person options, but how that was executed varied from teacher to teacher and district to district. It was made more complicated by the required quarantines whenever a student or teacher was exposed to someone who tested positive, as sometimes several hundred students who had been in classrooms suddenly had to shift to online options or other remote options for two week periods.

“We learned a lot from remote education,” he said. “There are aspects of it we’re definitely going to keep. Some kids were very successful with remote education. There were always some kids who were really left out of the educational environment, including kids who suffer from depression and anxiety, and we had nothing for them. Now I feel like we have some good resources available to them.”

Students who, for whatever reason, cannot be in the classroom can now find ways to learn and engage with teachers in a myriad ways.

“That’s a game changer for them,” he said.

Tom Sherwood, principal at Brighton High School, stands in the hallway as student hurry to class at the Cottonwood Heights school on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.
Tom Sherwood, principal at Brighton High School, stands in the hallway as student hurry to class at the Cottonwood Heights school on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Educational positives from the pandemic

The impact on teachers may be felt for many years, but Sherwood said there are silver linings.

“Other good days for me have been when I have had teachers come into my office, usually a teacher who isn’t good with technology, maybe someone who has been reluctant to try new things, and they’ve sat in my office and said, ‘This has been good for me. I’ve learned so much.’”

And then he adds, “It has, through all the negatives, been a great lever for change. There are still a ton of people in my building, as much as it’s been hard for them ... it has reinstilled a growth mindset in some of them, sparked them to action, and created positive change.”

Even as hope for life after the pandemic burns brighter with the possibilities of a vaccine, Sherwood said they won’t abandon all the changes they made this year.

“I can tell you this, we’re already having conversations about what next year is going to look like, what might be different and what we’ve learned,” Sherwood said. “You do things a certain way and it evolves over time, but every once in a while, you have a disruption. That’s an opportunity to improve.”

He adds, “We have learned a lot. I think there are some things we’ll never go back to. For example, I’m never going to sell tickets through a window at an event again. That will save me money. I used to pay five people to sit in a booth and exchange money for tickets to events. ... I’m going to use online ticketing. It’s easier, more organized, and I know who is buying tickets.”

As a member of the board of trustees of the Utah High School Activities Association, Sherwood was a leader in creating a plan that allowed Utah high schools to offer sports and other activities.

When many Western states opted not to play high school sports, Utah created a detailed plan of what was allowed at every level and forged ahead. Administrators had to rethink everything from how players could minimize risk while practicing and competing to whether schools could safely host spectators.

“There have been a lot of good days,” he said. “I think it was a good day when Utah led out and showed we can host high school sports safely.”

He points to the fact that the infection rate for those students participating in activities and sports is significantly lower than the rate in the general population.

“If something good has come of all of this, it’s that people have seen that (Utahns) have grit,” he said. “We’re not afraid to put in the work, do hard things and push through.”

Kurt Soffe arranges flowers for a viewing at Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Homes and Cremation Center in Murray on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.
Kurt Soffe arranges flowers for a viewing at Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Homes and Cremation Center in Murray on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Providing comfort without hugs or handshakes

In the first few months of the pandemic, Kurt Soffe saw families struggling with an aspect of sickness and death that he hadn’t seen since the HIV outbreak of the ’80s.

“There was such a social stigma with HIV,” said the fourth-generation funeral director and owner of Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Home and Cremation Center.

“And in the beginning, there absolutely was (a stigma with COVID-19). It stems from a lack of information. ... Families would say, ‘We’ve had a death; now, it’s not COVID,’ and they’d offer that usually within the first few seconds of the conversation. I think there were some that feared they would be told, ‘We can’t help you.’”

It was not an entirely irrational fear.

“There were some funeral homes that turned people away,” he said. “I had some families who told me, ‘This funeral home couldn’t help us.’”

Soffe said he and his employees simply did their best to make sure families felt like they had options at a time that was uniquely challenging because of the pandemic.

“I’m old enough to have been through SARS, MERS, HIV, Hong Kong flu, measles, mumps, rubella ... and I was a witness to polio,” said the 60-year-old whose worked in the business since high school.

He walked his staff through his own experiences and urged them to be diligent but unafraid. The real risks weren’t for those who came to them for cremation or burial; it was those mourning them.

“I said, ‘Everything we’re talking about has to do with the living’,” he said.

Soffe didn’t just have his own experiences to rely on. He has the records left by his grandfather, who started the business in 1915, just three years before the last pandemic — influenza — killed an estimated 50 million people, more than any other illness in recorded history.

“The connection I feel to him is one of gratitude and respect,” he said. “Some days I think it’s hard, but yet, I look back and see what they went through, from the pandemic, the Great Depression, World War I and World War II...just all of these challenges without the modern conveniences I have.”

Still, this pandemic created myriad challenges — some he could anticipate, others he didn’t.

“By March 15, we’d lost 10 part-time staff members,” he said, explaining they’d “prided ourselves on hiring those who needed a second career.”

Their age and the unknown dangers of the virus prompted most of them to quit out of concern for their safety or that of a vulnerable family member. That created an intense workload for the staff that remained, including being on call for 24-hour periods, in addition to working regular shifts.

“Today, I actually gave them a raise because of how incredible ...,” Soffe said, his emotions stopping him from finishing the sentence. “They’ve given their all. People will never know how hard they’ve worked, how they’ve left their own families to care for others. ... I can’t tell you how grateful, just so grateful for them. Just look at these circumstances.”

The demands have shifted as the pandemic progressed. With the initial shutdowns and restrictions on gatherings in Salt Lake County, it made most funerals impossible. Many families opted to just cremate with no service or go directly to the cemetery for a small graveside service.

“I had a great deal of concern, many sleepless nights,” he said. “I became very concerned with our ability to maintain our employees. Funerals are the service we provide, and when people say, ‘We don’t need your service’ that’s a problem.”

At the same time revenue dwindled, costs increased.

“Everything went quadruple, even 10 times what we would normally pay,” Soffe said. For example, the company normally used a heavy glove it paid $18 for 100 pairs. But for about six months, it had to settle for lesser quality gloves for $80 to $100.

Two things became unexpected blessings — the installation of video equipment that gave capability to stream services with a high quality and the fact that the company had been saving for a renovation project at the Murray location. The assistance offered by the government and the renovation fund became the company’s financial life preserver.

Kurt Soffe looks at a photo of his grandfather George A. Jenkins in his office at Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Homes and Cremation Center in Murray on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. On the wall behind him is a photo of this other grandfather, Vaughn Soffe.
Kurt Soffe looks at a photo of his grandfather George A. Jenkins in his office at Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Homes and Cremation Center in Murray on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. On the wall behind him is a photo of this other grandfather, Vaughn Soffe.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“All of that fund was used,” Soffe said. “So we were able to continue to pay our obligations.”

The adaptations and adjustments impacted almost every aspect of the business. Before COVID-19, a funeral director would take a call from a family in need 24/7 and respond to their home within 90 minutes. Now most of those visits are virtual, which have their own set of advantages and drawbacks.

The pandemic significantly changed what it meant to say goodbye to a loved one. Whether a person died from COVID-19 or something else, for many families, there was no slipped-from-this-life-surrounded-by-loved-ones opportunity, especially if hospitalization or a care center was involved. That can be a source of great pain for those who are left behind.

“We’ve had an increase in families wanting to see their loved ones before the final disposition,” he said. “We’ve had a significant increase in those who want to be there, be present, be involved, and see their loved ones. ... It’s increased during COVID across the board, not just COVID-related deaths.”

He and his staff found ways to safely allow families those important final goodbyes.

Soffe didn’t realize how much comfort came without words until he had to stay 6 feet away from the grieving.

“I didn’t realize how many contacts I had in a day — a handshake, putting an arm around someone, hugging someone when they just didn’t know what to do,” Soffe said, noting the lessons offered by the virus have been both personal and professional.

Fall and winter brought completely different challenges as Utah’s cases went from a few hundred to thousands of confirmed cases each day. Despite numbers that were four and five times higher than the spring or summer, officials didn’t shut down businesses again. So Jenkins-Soffe was allowed to host funerals, although with myriad safety precautions, including social distancing and masks, as well as no-contact viewing and receiving lines.

The number of funerals since November has increased 20% to 25% over the past five winters. The worst week meant hosting 27 funerals in a week in December.

“It was very taxing,” he said. “It’s very difficult because we knew we only had one chance to help each family.”

The lessons of the pandemic were just as numerous and nuanced as the challenges. Gathering to celebrate a life and mourn a loss remains as critical to families as it’s always been, but the way they’re doing it has changed during the pandemic.

“The fluff is gone right now,” he said. “We haven’t seen those big video displays or productions. ... A year ago, we’d turned into Modern Display. We had installed 85-inch TVs and a wireless system. ... But a lot of people are saying, ‘That isn’t what we want right now. We just want to be together.’”

He continued, “Families are telling us that what they thought was going to be a difficult experience has been an amazing experience where we focus on our family and close friends.”

Death has always been a reminder that life is precious, but somehow the pandemic has forced us to examine the quality of our interactions, as well.

“What it has done,” Soffe said, “is reminded us how quickly things can change.”

Heather Santi, owner of Eggs in the City, poses for a portrait outside of the eatery in Millcreek on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Heather Santi, owner of Eggs in the City, poses for a portrait outside of the eatery in Millcreek on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Restaurateur Heather Santi on survival

Nearly six weeks after she was forced to close the dining rooms of both her restaurants, Heather Santi was so desperate to reopen her doors, that she found herself sending money through Venmo to a “fixer” with dubious affiliations, just so she could acquire the high-priced, impossible-to-find masks, face shields and gloves required for even a partial reopen.

“Everything made it more difficult on small-business owners,” she said of the pandemic precautions to the political divisiveness. “It was just a really challenging year.”

Her challenges began St. Patrick’s Day weekend when Salt Lake County closed the dining rooms of restaurants. First came the reality that takeout wouldn’t allow her to keep all of her staff. Then there were the frantic applications for federal money that ran out within a matter of days.

And then, at the end of April, state health department officials announced they’d allow a limited reopening of restaurant dining rooms with a long list of stipulations, including asking employees to wear masks, gloves and face shields.

“After I solved the money issues, we couldn’t get things we needed like PPE, takeout boxes and bags, silverware,” Santi said. “And when we could get them, we were price gouged. It was like adding insult to injury. At this point, we need all the help we can get, and yet we’re paying triple to quadruple for things like gloves.”

She can laugh about the lengths she went to in buying masks and gloves that was 10 times its normal cost, but there are moments when it is humor rooted in pain.

“I am still bitter about the supply issues we’ve had,” she said.

There were a number of issues that arose with employees. First there was the issue of how to pay them without a dining room, and then when she received Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money, some employees decided they’d rather not work in what some considered a high-risk environment when they could make as much or more on unemployment.

“I do feel like a lot of people took advantage of that,” she said, adding that there were also issues with quarantine requirements of COVID-19 exposure. “I had a lot of the same people saying, ‘I think I have a headache today ... I think I have COVID.’”

And whether the employees worked or not, she had to pay them as part of the CARES Act requirements.

“We were just always running short of staff,” she said.

The political climate also made it harder to just serve food to hungry customers.

“The mask debate was really challenging,” she said. “I didn’t want to get involved in political views. ... As a business owner, I want to abide by the law and keep my doors open, and the mask mandate was part of that. ... It was hard trying to balance being a business owner with all these different sort of belief systems.”

She said the requirement led to arguments with customers and put her young employees in extremely difficult, sometimes abusive situations.

“For the most part, I found people to be very understanding and appreciative of it,” Santi said. “But there were outliers. Recently, a guy was running by our restaurant, so he wasn’t even a customer. He came in to use the bathroom, and the host asked him to put on a mask.”

Heather Santi, owner of Eggs in the City, fills a condiment cup for a to-go order at the eatery in Millcreek on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Heather Santi, owner of Eggs in the City, fills a condiment cup for a to-go order at the eatery in Millcreek on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

After berating the employees, he left and yelled at them, “‘I’ll just pee on your fence.’ All because we were asking him to abide by the law.”

Santi said just as she felt like business was getting back to reasonable levels, the sharp rise in cases in the fall led to new restrictions that almost destroyed all of the rebuilding the company managed to do from May to October.

“We’d seen a lot of business growth come during the summer,” she said. “And then, in October, they released new guidelines that said if you went to a restaurant, you were supposed to be from the same family. How are we supposed to enforce that? I’ll be honest, I just didn’t do it.”

But many of the people who had been coming to eat at Eggs in the City in Millcreek and Herm’s Inn in Logan stayed away.

“It was a disaster financially,” she said. “Here we’d been finally getting back to somewhat normal numbers ... and then, right there at the end, it just crumbled.”

She said it took six weeks after that to even begin to rebound from the second surge.

Still, Santi says she is one of the lucky ones.

“I will say, as a business owner, I feel very fortunate,” she said. “I qualified for all the funding and was given that safety net to get through the last year. Millcreek City has been an amazing support system for us. They reached out to check on me, and we got a grant. ... I have a nice following of loyal customers. Overall, I’ve been very fortunate.”

Despite the difficulties, she has kept her sense of humor and her sense of optimism.

“I’ve been tested nine times, but I never got it,” she said of working at both restaurants throughout the pandemic. “I did invest in kind of an expensive HEPA filter system because I was nervous that people would be very scared.”

She said the development of the vaccine has made her hopeful.

“I think if enough people get vaccinated this year, things might continue on a good path,” she said. “I’m a little nervous, but I just need some kind of relief. You’ve felt tense and on edge all year. ... But overall, I feel like Utah was really lucky compared to states like California. I need to be thankful that the government let us keep our doors open. If I had to go to 10 percent capacity (like some California counties) ... I can’t operate like that. I would have to close my doors.”

Pastor Oscar Moses stands in the aisle at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.
Pastor Oscar Moses stands in the aisle at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Ministering remotely

The Rev. Oscar Moses was still finding his way with a new congregation in a new community far from his Chicago roots when COVID-19 precautions forced him to rethink everything about the way he ministered.

“We were just getting acclimated, pastor and people,” said Pastor Moses, who preached at Calvary Baptist for a few months before being elected to succeed local icon the Rev. France Davis in December of 2019. “The attendance on Sunday morning was picking up, and then the third Sunday in March was our last public gathering as we knew it.”

Warm and engaging, Pastor Moses found himself trying to replace handshakes and hugs with words that might guide, comfort and sustain people from the isolation of his apartment where he began recording Sunday sermons.

“I didn’t even have a home yet,” he said. “I would not be genuine if I didn’t say there was some anxiety. Here I am a new pastor, and people are looking to me for leadership. I led my prior church for 17 years, but I’ve never given leadership during a pandemic.”

As the number of COVID-19 cases increased, he decided to go back to his hometown of Chicago where his wife was there caring for her mother who was struggling with Alzheimer’s.

“It was a blessing,” he said. “It took a tremendous amount of pressure off of my wife, as she’d just had foot surgery.”

The realities of a remote ministry forced Pastor Moses to completely rethink the way he fulfilled his calling to bring people to Jesus Christ. That meant finding ways to connect that kept him and others safe by maintaining physical distance, as health officials had advised, but also connected them in spiritual and emotional ways.

Technology became the bridge that would not only allow him to maintain the connections he’d made but also build a “virtual ministry” that’s become increasingly robust. Sunday sermons were the foundation of his efforts, but he quickly added midweek messages and a weekly, in-depth Bible study class.

Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 6 a.m. and noon, Pastor Moses offers a prayer line, where “they can call in and receiver prayer.”

“We had to be more creative about how we reached out to members,” he said. “We’re now doing more than we did before COVID. There is no excuse for someone who says they cannot connect.”

Pastor Oscar Moses preaches at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.
Pastor Oscar Moses preaches at Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There were some things, however, that couldn’t be done online, although almost everything done in person has been adapted to respect public health guidelines.

“As much as we could do in person, we did that,” Pastor Moses said. “We have a feeding program, where once a month we give nonperishables to those who need it.”

The most difficult issue became helping people through death. Gathering to celebrate the life of a loved one with family, both of blood and of faith, is one of the most important ways American’s process grief. The pandemic stole that from most families, including those who worship at Calvary Baptist.

“I made a decision that Calvary could not facilitate funerals,” Moses said. “If people wanted me to be involved in another way, I was willing.”

He did offer funeral sermons at services conducted at funeral homes when that was allowed, and he tried to tailor messages to families suffering losses that often felt bigger and heavier than words could hold or address.

“I’ve had to find the creativity to minister without words,” he said. “There are situations where words can’t really match what’s going on.”

“Every situation is unique, and I think it’s connected me to more families from Calvary.”

For Pastor Moses, 2020 wasn’t just about enduring a pandemic. His responsibilities only intensified after George Floyd was killed by Minnesota police officers in May, sparking outrage and almost daily protests.

“People were looking for leadership, looking for a voice in the African American community, and here I am following a civil rights icon in the Rev. France Davis,” he said, acknowledging the mentorship and generosity of Davis. “I spoke out as a new community leader.”

He said he felt the racial unrest growing, even before last summer’s protests.

“It was kind of like a pathogen, something that had been lying dormant, and at the onset of the Trump presidency, it was like it heated up,” he said. “All those things we thought were gone away, old feelings we thought were dead, they were like pathogens that surfaced to the top again.”

The fact that our racial reckoning happened during a pandemic “just heightened everything. It made it even worse. You had the issue of social distancing. People were on edge.”

Pastor Moses’ goal throughout the protests was to “speak truth to power” and to implore leaders to “be even more empathetic.”

“I have felt more sympathy than empathy,” he said of the response from political leaders to racial injustice. “(Leaders of all types) are very sympathetic with the conditions of African American people. But empathy says, ‘I am so in this with you, that I am willing to share some of the power.’ This is where the conversation takes a left turn.”

Pastor Moses feels the core of Christianity is social justice, and he is compelled to continue that work as he continues to address all of the needs of his flock. His congregation lost four members to COVID-19, and each leaves a unique void.

But he said he also sees — and feels — something else growing in the past year.

“I see more love in the congregation,” he said. “There is more love, and I can feel that love. From what I’m hearing, with core people on the ministry team, people are feeling it, too. People are more excited, but it is still a challenge keeping people connected.”

Every challenge, every hardship has also been an opportunity. And Moses said he’s grateful to serve in this moment.

“Even in this, I’m thankful,” he said, noting he appreciates with new depth physical contact with other people. “I’m taking the opportunity that’s presented itself. ... I think every challenge sharpens you, strengthens your faith. And this has been a faith-strengthening situation. It’s heightened my sensitivity toward membership, and no doubt it’s increased my ministering skills.”

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