For Salem congregation, a stunning concentration of COVID, a reliance on faith

Joshua Lindley receives supplemental oxygen to help him breathe while hospitalized with COVID-19 at Salem Hospital (Courtesy/Joshua Lindley)

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Joshua Lindley was eager to be back in his Salem church.

In early March, the 39-year-old business consultant returned from his mother’s funeral in Arkansas and went to see friends at Salem First Church of the Nazarene. There he found comfort in a community he’s been part of for over a decade. 

He was feeling especially tired that day, the result, he assumed, of his travels. Nothing serious, he thought.

The March 8 service was normal, with one exception. Interim lead pastor Bill Carr told Lindley the congregation was for the time stopping handshakes, a precaution to limit any spread of COVID-19. Lindley, a self-described “germophobe,” announced the change to the congregation.

Otherwise, the service went on as usual. Lindley sometimes leads the music for the service and on this Sunday he played “10,000 Reasons” on keyboard, a song about the good God provides in human life.

“It was just a good upbeat service,” Lindley said.

That turned out to be the last service the church held in its sprawling Market Street facility as the global pandemic took hold in Oregon.

Within a week, Lindley was seriously ill. The disease sapped his energy and left him fighting for breath after walking a few feet. He was not alone.

Over the next month, 10 members of the church tested positive for COVID-19. Two would die, their spouses saying goodbye over the phone, the mechanical hum of a ventilator in the background.

No one imagined the church would face such a devastating turn.

Executive pastor Jerry Morris said he was aware of the virus by early March, and he responded as most Americans, limiting handshakes and being more careful about hygiene.

“As a pastor, you’re shaking hands, you’re with people all the time. You become kind of obsessed with washing your hands,” he said.

Some in the congregation had been sick recently, he said, with pneumonia or other respiratory ailments. That wasn’t unusual for a flock of 700 during flu season.

The next week the pastor realized the virus was going to touch nearly all Oregonians, including his congregation.

“It was just starting to become everyday news. It was starting to break in on people that there was something happening out of the ordinary,” he said. “It took some people a while to dial into just how serious it was, number one, and just how far the government was willing to go to try … to keep this thing from spreading.”

On March 9, Lindley was unpacking boxes from a recent move when the virus he didn’t know he was carrying took hold.

“I just got, like, hot and sweaty and feeling like I wanted to lay down on the ground, like almost pass out,” he said. 

The feeling passed for the moment but returned several times in the next few days. By March 11, he was feverish. The following day, he went to an urgent care clinic. The doctor there suspected he might have a kidney infection because of his history of kidney stones, he said, and sent him home with antibiotics.

Jerry Morris, executive pastor at Salem First Church of the Nazarene (Courtesy/Salem First Church of the Nazarene)

A decision to close

Meantime, Morris, the executive pastor, and other church leaders were keeping a close eye on the rapid shutdown of public life around Salem and Oregon.

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. Morris said church leaders began to talk about shutting down the campus.

That night, Morris taught an evening class at church and came home feeling sick. Within hours, he had a fever, aches and shortness of breath. His wife, Cathi, developed similar symptoms several days later.

On March 14, the church board voted in an emergency meeting to close the campus indefinitely. There would be no worship services and no meetings, a step the church had never taken in its 107 years.

The decision came, Morris said, during a week when “more and more stuff began to happen quickly” across Oregon. Brown announced a statewide school closure, and it seemed clear stricter limits were on the horizon.

Still sick himself, Morris set up a ministry care team to check in on families over video and phone calls, to make sure people received spiritual support and, if needed, necessities like groceries. Carr, the interim lead pastor, conducted Sunday’s service by a livestream on the church website and Facebook page.

Morris meantime also stayed in touch with Lindley, who wasn’t doing well.

Lindley’s fever continued, with body aches that got worse. Nothing yet explained his symptoms.

After two urgent care visits, he saw his regular doctor on March 16, who again tested him for flu.

When that test came back negative, Lindey’s doctor asked him to leave out the clinic’s back door to avoid exposing anyone to whatever illness he had.

He got a referral for a COVID-19 test, waiting his turn while sitting in his car in the Salem Clinic parking lot, wearing a white surgical mask.

Beckoned inside the clinic’s rear entrance, Lindley faced masked workers in blue gowns who stuck a swab deep into his nose.

“It really is scary because I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’” Lindley said.

Morris knew Lindley was seriously ill and that doctors suspected COVID-19, but he hadn’t heard of any other cases in their congregation.

In fact, others were falling ill.

Steve Betschart, 71, a Sunday School teacher, church trumpet player and member of the church’s board, began feeling sick around March 15.

“We thought it was just a cold or a flu,” said his daughter, Jenni Betschart. Her mother had a cough too, but recovered in a matter of days. Her father didn’t.

When he began running a fever, his doctor ordered a test for coronavirus.  Betschart went home to await the results.

Jenni took groceries to her parents, finding her father in his living room chair, clearly ill.

“He was being really lethargic, having a hard time staying awake at that point,” she said. 

With a large congregation, the pastors aren’t personally in touch with every church member. The staff rely on families and friends for notice when someone is sick, in the hospital or might need extra care.

On Saturday, March 21, Morris learned from church administrator Bertie Miller that a longtime church member in her 80s was in the hospital. She’d already been there several days and had tested positive for COVID-19.

Morris immediately called the woman’s husband. It became evident that the disease would change the way he ministered to people.

Normally, Morris doesn’t visit every member who’s sick or in the hospital, but when someone is seriously ill or facing the death of a spouse, he’ll go to their bedside.

“At some point, I would have wanted to be in touch with them so I can pray for them personally,” he said. “Not that my prayers mean anything more to God, but if you can, you become Jesus’ touch to them. That’s the whole point of why the church exists.”

But Salem Hospital barred nearly all visitors starting March 16. Those confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19 were alone in the hospital – no visits from spouses or ministers. Morris said that made the illness loom worse for those left waiting to get news by phone.

“It’s just so hard to be at home. You wait for the calls, they don’t always update you. The separation makes it difficult,” Morris said. “Everybody’s anxious. Everybody’s concerned. Everybody knows where this thing can go.”

The next day, March 22, marked two weeks since Salem First Nazarene’s last service, two weeks since Morris embraced Lindley in the sanctuary and noted his longtime friend was feeling poorly.

For that Sunday’s service, broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube, Carr continued a series of sermons on Biblical parables. But he opened his message reminding the faithful of God’s comfort, reading from Psalm 23.

“It is he that is Lord, not the coronavirus,” Carr told his congregation. “Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, God knows exactly where you are, he knows exactly what you’re facing and he is ready and available to walk with you and bring to you the comfort and the hope that will sustain you in this dark hour.”

That day, two from the congregation were hospitalized.

Lindley was still sick and though his COVID test hadn’t come back yet, the doctor reviewing his X-ray was worried. His chest looked like ones she’d seen from other COVID patients, Lindley said. She spoke with his wife, a nurse at Salem Hospital, and recommended they seek hospital care, so the Lindleys got in the car. 

Lindley was rolled into the emergency room in a wheelchair while his wife stayed in the car.

Steve Betschart, too, hadn’t improved, so his wife called an ambulance.

“Josh gets admitted the 22nd. Steve Betschart, by ambulance, gets admitted the 22nd,” Morris said. He remembers the date clearly, the first drumbeats of a steady march.

“When things finally happened, they happened very quickly,” he said.

Until that day, no one at the church realized Betschart was seriously ill.

“The first time we knew was the day he was taken to the hospital,” Morris said.

Lindley was put in the hospital’s COVID unit, a sixth-floor wing of patients in isolated rooms. Outside his window, he could see downtown Salem and the Willamette University campus.

Betschart, too, was alone in a room. Their human contact was limited to doctors, nurses and other workers coming to care for them, wearing masks and face shields.

“It was crazy. You could hear people coughing through the walls on both sides of me,” Lindley said. He took to watching birds outside his window to pass the time.

Three from the congregation were now seriously ill at Salem Hospital. Morris, knowing many of the faithful were over 60 and lived in retirement homes, feared it was just the beginning.

“When I considered the demographic, I was heartsick. I said, ‘Oh Lord, please,’ and I prayed,” he said. “I know how vulnerable that church family is. You’ve got, on a given Sunday morning, 350 mostly older folks in a worship service together.”

Morris was still sick, having trouble breathing. He was prescribed antibiotics to treat pneumonia after a visit by phone with his doctor, but never tested for COVID.

Even at his sickest, Morris didn’t want to go to the hospital, for fear he would be admitted.

“I may never see you again,” he explained to his wife.

It was a fear amplified by the separations he saw in the congregation.

“I was in touch with people every day in those situations,” he said.

Fatigue, coughing and a trip to the beach

That would eventually include Ruth and Roy Hall, 78 and 79.

The couple had been part of Salem First Nazarene since 1972. Roy, a retired family practice doctor from Salem Clinic, and Ruth, a retired nurse, prided themselves on keeping up their acre and a half property just outside of Salem. As March opened, they started mowing and getting ready for summer, Ruth said.

“We are a young 79 and 78. Everybody tells us that,” she said.

But by mid-March, Ruth was fatigued, with aching muscles and little appetite. Roy developed a cough, she said. 

They called their doctor’s office about being tested for the coronavirus. They didn’t have the symptoms warranting a test, they were told. To get over whatever was ailing them, the Halls traveled to their beach house in Lincoln City.

That was the same week that families called or emailed the church office to report those who were ill or tested positive for COVID-19. Miller, the church administrator, dutifully relayed the information to Morris and other ministers in a daily phone call each morning. Morris grew to dread the updates.

“Every day I woke up, there was somebody new on that list. I’d think ‘Lord, I know you don’t want us to live in fear,’” Morris said.

A core belief of nearly every Christian denomination is eternal life through Jesus, a theme especially resonant in the weeks before Easter. But even an unshakable belief in the afterlife doesn’t erase the pain of watching people head into the hospital, one after another.

“These are hard situations that people go through. And I’d just kind of live with this anxiety of ‘Who’s next?’” he said. One day, he looked at a picture of Lindley from his hospital bed and turned to his wife. “Cathi, is he going to make it?”

On March 25, a 82-year-old woman from his congregation died, the first from Salem First Nazarene to succumb to COVID-19.

The next day, two more with the virus were hospitalized.

One was Roy Hall, who had not improved at the beach. 

“He was weak. He couldn’t do anything. He didn’t want to read a book and that wasn’t him,” Ruth said.

After another call to their doctor, Ruth took him to the Salem Hospital emergency room, unaware the hospital was now excluding most visitors.

“When we got there they said, ‘You just have to leave,’ and I said, ‘What?’” she recalled.

She refused, checking herself in at the emergency room as a patient so she could stay with her husband of 56 years.

They were led to separate rooms for screening. As Ruth was waiting for her X-ray results, a nurse said her husband had pneumonia and was being admitted. Soon after, doctors released her to return home.

She’d had no idea Roy was that seriously ill, and asked if she could see him again before leaving. Hospital workers said no, and walked her to the emergency room exit. She went to collect her car, shocked, and began to drive.

“I just couldn’t do it. I pulled over to the side of the road and sat there and cried for a long time before I could go home,” she said.

The two met at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. She was a freshman just a few weeks into school when a friend arranged a blind date.

From their first date, Ruth said, she knew she didn’t want to see anybody else. By Christmas, they were exclusive and stayed together throughout their time in Nampa.

After college, the pair moved to Portland to attend Oregon Health and Sciences University. They shared a studio apartment, surviving on a $185 month.

“We had to wait awhile before we could scrape up enough money to get married,” she said. 

They married in 1963 as she was finishing her junior year of nursing school. Roy was in his second year of medical school. They eventually moved to Salem, where they spent most of their careers before retiring.

Now, Roy Hall was alone in the hospital.

A woman in her late 60s who also attended First Nazarene was hospitalized that day as well. She was joined two days later by her brother, also part of the church.

Morris felt the relentless hold the virus was taking on the congregation.

“There was a lot of anxiety, for all of us, as it began to break, for fear that it would just be this tsunami,” Morris said.

By March 26, five members of the church were in the hospital. Betschart and Hall were critically ill.

Steve and Jenni Betschart in 2016. (Courtesy/Jenni Betschart)

Prayers and song by phone

Betschart’s first day in the hospital was dire.

He was put on a ventilator shortly after being admitted, Jenni said, and later that day his heart stopped. Doctors and nurses revived him with CPR. The same day, hospital staff told the family his COVID test came back positive.

“It’s like somebody kicks you in the stomach and knocks you over,” Jenni said. “I remember feeling shocked because we thought it was a cold.”

But in the following days, he improved. Doctors reduced him from 100% oxygen to 40% and weaned him off one heart medication. He couldn’t speak, but would squeeze nurses’ hands when asked and opened his eyes once to look around his room.

The family called in, with nurses placing the phone in a plastic bag and then placing it on Betschart’s shoulder to listen. He couldn’t talk, sedated and ventilated with a tube down his windpipe to help get oxygen into his lungs and carbon dioxide out.

Jenni Betschart turned to music to buoy her gravely ill father. Though the family lived in Dallas, the Betscharts have been driving to services at Salem First Nazarene for more than 30 years. Betschart played trumpet in the church orchestra and bugle in his longtime hobby as a Civil War reenactor. His wife, Karen, played the flute and Jenni sang at the church, starting as a teen.

 When on the phone with her father, Jenni sang and prayed.

“Sometimes I would just play a song through my laptop and I would sing when I could and pray over the song,” she said. 

She sang “The Waymaker,” a song she’d learned at a worship conference she attended over her birthday weekend in late February, a month and a lifetime earlier. It’s about how God is a miracle worker.

“We prayed for healing, we prayed for a miracle, we prayed for strength and comfort,” Jenni said.

Jenni kept relatives and friends updated on Facebook, sharing the hopeful news. 

She did so while quarantined in her Salem home, alone except for her cat, a 24-pound tuxedo named Mr. Benjamin.

Lindley too counted on phone calls for company as he spent five days in the hospital during his nearly month-long illness. He had quarantined himself at home but both his wife and his father, who was visiting from Arkansas, subsequently tested positive for COVID. Neither was hospitalized.

While in the hospital, Lindley took selfies and updated friends and family through Facebook. That almost took more energy than he had some days, but he said the effort helped beat back the mental isolation of being in the hospital.

“Every comment meant the world to me,” he said. 

“I love you Joshua! Keep up the good work and make sure you’re giving your medical staff the laughs and entertainment they need and you’re always so great at providing,” a friend wrote on his post.

Lindley said his symptoms included the cough, fever and shortness of breath common to the virus, but he also had a runny nose, diarrhea, body aches and exhaustion.

He didn’t require a ventilator, but did receive supplemental oxygen. Nurses packed ice around him to cool his fever – “kind of like packing a fish,” he said – and administered Tylenol. At his worst, Lindley was so weak he couldn’t walk the 10 feet to the bathroom and back.

“There were times that I ended up just sitting on the floor and waiting to recoup enough energy to go back to the bed,” he said. 

Each breath he took felt like he was in subzero arctic temperatures, he said. 

“It’s just this air that hits you like a brick,” he said.

The evening of March 24, his second day in the hospital, a nurse came into Lindley’s room and told him he’d tested positive for the coronavirus. It wasn’t a surprise, he said, and he didn’t think much of it until she left the room. Then, he said, the gravity of his illness hit him.

“I remember sitting there and it was like the room was spinning,” he said. “You’re seeing on TV, internet all these people dying.” 

He thought about the young, healthy people who had died from the virus, then resolved he couldn’t fixate on that if he wanted to recover and go home.

“It was scary. It’s the sickest I’ve ever been, the longest I’ve ever been sick,” he said. 

But by March 26, he was improving enough to go home.

Ruth Hall, too, learned that she was indeed infected with the virus, confirming a suspicion she had formed weeks earlier. She persuaded her doctor to refer her for a test on March 26.

She waited at home for updates on her still-hospitalized husband. Family, neighbors and the Salem First Nazarene congregation comforted her.

“I cannot believe the goodness of people,” she said. “I had food and groceries and flowers and my neighbors were mowing the lawn. I’ve just been overwhelmed by how many people have just taken care of us and it’s been amazing. Every day I get phone calls: ‘What can I do for you today?’”

As she prayed for her husband, Ruth said word of her circumstance quickly spread beyond Salem. A friend who leads a Bible study group put word out to her members. Other Nazarene churches joined in. Friends and family asked their congregations to pray.

Roy, who had been near death, began to improve.

“God must have looked down and said, ‘Well if there’s this many people all over the country praying for this guy, I’d better leave him alone and let him stay. I’m not sure whether that’s sound or not but made sense to me,” she said, laughing.

She then learned many others in the congregation were sick too. She told Morris, the pastor, he didn’t need to call but he did anyway, daily.

Finally, on April 3, Roy Hall was well enough to finish his recovery at home, and Ruth went to the hospital to get him.

Drawing on her years of nursing, she’s been tending him.

Last week, she cut his hair.

A call and goodbye

But back at the hospital, Steve Betschart wasn’t recovering.

Early in his stay, Jenni wrote on Facebook, “There is nothing magical about prayer. Ten prayers or 10,000 does not gain us favor with the Father. But there is obedience. God asks us to make our needs known to Him. So if you are a believer please lift up a healing prayer for dad in this moment.”

Her father’s condition worsened with pneumonia and multiple infections. On the phone, his doctor was kind but clear: Betschart was shutting down.

“The doctor got back to my mom and they started talking about palliative care and helping him transition,” Jenni said. “At first, we were really talking words of encouragement over him and praying healing over him, praying calmness over him. And then it was going through the process of letting him go.”

They talked as a family. Betschart had been in the hospital a few times in recent years, after a cardiac incident, and with cellulitis. Now, the family agreed to take him off the ventilator and leave the rest to God.

“There wasn’t anything else the medical community could do at that point. Keeping him in that state for longer wasn’t going to give his body time to heal because it wasn’t healing,” Jenni said. 

One by one, relatives called Betschart to say their last goodbyes. Nurses made extra trips into his room to set the phone on his shoulder. Jenni said sometimes, she thought she heard sniffles from the nurses checking vitals as relatives wished him a peaceful transition.

“They say that it’s important to give people permission to go if they’ve been holding on for a really long time,” she said. “We don’t know what a person can hear or not hear but there’s evidence people can still hear you, so the family made phone calls on the 1st and the 2nd to give him that permission to go if that’s what he was supposed to do.”

On Thursday, April 2, Jenni called, praying and telling her dad she was ready to let him go. Her mother was the last person to speak to him.

Then, by the family’s agreement, the life supports were removed. He died soon after.

A reliance on faith

Morris had steeled himself for a new wave of illnesses. So far, that hasn’t happened.

As Easter approached, those who were still ill seemed to be recovering. Only one member of the congregation remained in the hospital with COVID-19, Morris said.

Nobody could explain why some recovered and others didn’t, he said.

“I believe God listens to our prayers. And I’m grateful God just seemed to shut a door for us,” he said.

As with a common cold, most of those sickened will never know for sure where they caught the virus, whether it spread among people not yet showing symptoms at that early March service, or in a trip to the grocery store.

 “I would only blame somebody if they knew that they were coughing on people and exposing people,” Jenni Betschart said. “Other than that I wouldn’t place blame on people.”

Her father fell sick before the scope of the virus was widely known. Now, she hopes her family’s loss can remind others the importance of staying home and following health guidelines to keep others safe.

Betschart is to date the only Polk County resident to die of COVID-19.

Those touched by the virus said it’s changed their faith, underscoring the role church and community play in their lives.

At 39, Lindley said he had not seriously confronted his mortality before falling sick. For him, the realization he could die made him lean on God for strength in a way he never has.

“You don’t want anything bad to ever happen within a community but this is a place where there’s caring and loving people,” he said. “If it did have to happen somewhere it’s probably better in a place where people care.”

For now, the families affected can’t gather in person to share experiences. Until the pandemic ends, there will be no church memorial service for Steve Betschart, no place for the hundreds of people whose lives he touched to hold hands and listen to a recording of him playing “Taps.”

But on April 9, Jenni and Karen Betschart and their close family gathered for a graveside memorial, wearing masks and keeping six feet between households.

Jenni played a recording of herself reading a letter to her father, knowing she’d otherwise be unable to read it at his grave without breaking down in tears.

Salem First Church of the Nazarene. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Joshua Lindley waits for his COVID-19 test at Salem Clinic on March 16, 2020. (Courtesy/Joshua Lindley)

Joshua Lindley’s room at Salem Hospital was marked with extra warnings for droplet precautions. (Courtesy/Joshua Lindley)

Joshua Lindley’s hospital discharge instructions after he was released from Salem Hospital on March 26, 2020. (Courtesy/Joshua Lindley)

Joshua Lindley sits on the porch of his Salem home on Friday, April 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Roses sit on Steve Betschart’s coffin during a graveside memorial service on April 9, 2020, in Dallas, Oregon. (Courtesy/Jenni Betschart)

Correction: This article was updated on April 19, 2020 to correct the date of the first church member’s death.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.