This time a year ago, the novel pathogen COVID-19 had become known by name the world over. Governments issued lockdowns as citizens sequestered in their homes. Masks and social distancing issued unique challenges to fellowship and service among the body of Christ.
The Bible instructs Christians against neglecting to meet together for the sake of mutual encouragement (Heb 10:25), but what does that look like in the middle of a pandemic? How can believers serve one another without needlessly jeopardizing their health and that of those they serve? How should the body of Christ minister to those facing grief and tragedy in such an environment?
These make up only a handful of the challenges the church faced in 2020, many of which have bled into the present day. While no one can definitely say when the pandemic will end, the mission of the church has not changed. Believers are still called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2) and aspire to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23).
Hardship has a way of revealing what we truly believe. It drives us to what we worship, unveiling the fruit of our roots. Reformed Theological Seminary endeavors to train servant leaders who are marked by sound doctrine and sincere love. By God’s grace, that truth-filled love has been on display through members of this community in creative and mighty ways, even in these uncertain times. Although difficult to choose from many examples, this article highlights the stories of three RTS families: the Morgans, the Stones, and the Baileys.
On October 23, Step Morgan, Director of Admissions at RTS Jackson, crashed his mountain bike on the final section of a trail he had ridden dozens of times previously. A mechanical failure sent him toppling in a fall that severely broke his lower left leg and severed an artery.
Experiencing major blood loss, he was rushed to the hospital where doctors worked to repair the extensive damage. Step’s wife, Jessica, rushed to join him, leaving their children in the care of their grandparents. “It was such an immediate, no transition tragedy… I left my home on Friday evening and did not return until Sunday morning in the middle of the night.”
That’s when the body of Christ stepped in. As word got out, their “Christian siblings,” as Jessica calls them, began coordinating with the oldest Morgan son to identify the family’s needs. Within a week, all of the Morgan children had rides to their regular activities, school meals planned for the remainder of the year, and groceries provided. “We didn’t even have to ask,” Jessica said.
After a week of surgeries and deliberations, the doctors determined Step’s injured leg required an amputation below the knee, which would result in additional surgeries and extensive physical therapy. While there’s no escaping the shock of such news, the Morgan family was able to take it in stride thanks to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
We’re meant to be together. Not just able to see pictures of each other, but actually in the same space together… It’s a reminder of what’s meant to be and what will be when Christ returns.Friends delivered meals, maintained their yard, and updated the family’s home to accommodate Step’s walker and crutches. Most importantly, they saturated the Morgans in prayer, even if it meant doing so from the hospital parking lot. The family’s church prayed for Step corporately during services, and their loved ones recruited others to pray, whether or not they had any connection to the Morgans. Step still receives notes from a Baptist church in Cleveland, Mississippi letting him know they are praying for him. “It’s been such an encouragement and a real help,” he shared.
And the help hasn’t stopped. People continue to check in and lend a hand whenever it’s needed. COVID-19 has made bodily service challenging, but not impossible, as the Morgans have discovered firsthand. “We’re meant to be together,” says Step. “Not just able to see pictures of each other, but actually in the same space together… It’s a reminder of what’s meant to be and what will be when Christ returns.”
For the Morgans, their needs continue primarily in the forms of medical bills and ongoing rehab. But many in the church have come to bear more abstract burdens, most notably that of grief. While such a need cannot be met with financial charity or medical surgery, neither can it be carried alone.
Losing a spouse is one of those invisible burdens. Whether or not it’s expected, the shared routines of daily life shift dramatically when suddenly left to a party of one. That’s where Bob Stone found himself in the latter months of 2020.
Bob and Pauline “Polly” Stone have been associated with the seminary since 1994. Polly earned her MATS and served in a variety of staff roles there, culminating in the Chief Institutional Assessment Officer and filling a seat on the board of Association of Theological Schools.
She and Bob were nearing 24 years of marriage together when she received a cancer diagnosis in 2016. The news came as a shock to her husband and two children, Amanda and Robert, as well as their place of worship, Ballantyne Presbyterian Church. Bob and Polly were founding members, devoting years of service to the church, with Polly rising to become the Director of Christian Education and regularly teaching women’s Bible studies.
Adding to an already difficult battle with cancer, COVID-19 arrived and with it additional precautions during Polly’s treatment. Then, in August, Polly was placed in hospice care, the doctors giving her only weeks to live. Faced with these obstacles, the Stones’ community got creative.
Loved ones delivered flowers, notes, and texts, as others spoke with Polly over video calls and in-person visits. Some of Polly’s closest friends moved in with the Stones to take shifts throughout the night, watching over Polly and allowing Bob to rest. They would lie in bed with her, talk, and laugh together. They changed sheets, administered medication, and prayed over her.
Due to Polly’s love of hymns, Ballantyne arranged for a string quartet to perform some of her favorites on the back porch of the Stone’s home. Friends and family gathered in the backyard and worshiped together for hours. Missy described the occasion as a “foretaste of heaven… The church was by her side until the end.”
Death has failed to steal the joy of those who gathered around Polly in her final weeks. She endured to the end, and those she left behind continue to persevere, in large part due to her faithful witness.On August 31, Polly went to be with the Lord. While there’s no replacing her presence, the body of Christ has continued to serve Bob in her absence. He shares, “You have no way to prepare for the loss of a spouse at an early age… There is grief, sadness, and loneliness that is not possible to prepare for. I am not sure how it would be without the church. They have loved me and shown me the love of Christ. It has not made it easy, but it has been good to be with people who loved Polly.”
The Stones and their community have clung to Christ amidst the pain. Death has failed to steal the joy of those who gathered around Polly in her final weeks. She endured to the end, and those she left behind continue to persevere, in large part due to her faithful witness.
Bob Bailey can attest to as much. He and his wife, Amanda, were long-time friends of Polly’s parents and knew her since the day she was born. Amanda and Polly spoke together over FaceTime only five days before her death. Little did they know at the time that Amanda would follow Polly into glory less than a month later.
Amanda Bailey was no stranger to hardship. In many ways, her life was marked by it: widowed at age 27 and preceded in death by her daughter and two of her grandchildren. Yet, the Lord continued to meet her with provision.
Shortly after her first husband’s death, she met Bob Bailey who became a devoted father to her children and her husband for the next 53 years. Amanda poured herself into ministering at First Presbyterian Church Yazoo City where she taught Sunday School, women’s Bible studies, and regularly spoke at functions around the area.
A lover of the Word, she began auditing classes at RTS in the mid-1980s, a habit that became so consistent she went on to earn the unofficial title of completing the most classroom hours with the least credit hours of any student. In 1995, Bob joined RTS as Vice President for Development, later to become Chief Operations Officer and Assistant to the Chancellor, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 2008.
Amanda passionately shared what she learned in her RTS courses as she taught Bible studies and Sunday school classes and coordinated women’s retreats in Mississippi. She felt particularly drawn to junior and senior high school students, a calling that bore generous fruit as many of the students’ “lives reflected what they credited her with teaching them,” says Bob.
Following the unexpected death of their daughter in 2013, Amanda’s health began to gradually decline. She suffered from severe back pain that surgery could not correct, which limited her mobility. Bob devotedly cared for her along with a hired housekeeper, and several women from their church checked in on her. Eventually, her mobility declined to the point that she was unable to continue teaching. So she took to a ministry of texting, composing digital birthday notes, encouraging reminders, and biblical truth.
Still, time took its toll and with her health in decline, Amanda contracted COVID-19 and died of complications related to the virus in September, welcomed into her Savior’s embrace at the age of 82.
There will always be times of celebration and sorrow within the church, and Scripture tells us to meet them with the ministry of presence — even if it requires a mask and six feet of separation.Friends from First Presbyterian have continued to care for Bob over the past months. He has appreciated friends who reach out to him to let him know that they’re thinking of him and praying for him and those who have intentionally invited him to spend time together before and after his time as Amanda’s primary caregiver.
Such is the call of the body of Christ. COVID-19 is only the latest challenge in the long history of the church, which has navigated countless travails to serve those in need, and will continue doing so until Jesus returns.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” There will always be times of celebration and sorrow within the church, and Scripture tells us to meet them with the ministry of presence — even if it requires a mask and six feet of separation. As we look to Christ’s return, may we live out our faith with love boldly on display, stewarding what God has given to us to care for our Christian siblings. May our lives be to those around us a foretaste of eternity in the presence our Savior.
Collin Huber is a professional writer and senior editor for Fathom magazine.
Kelly Berkompas contributed material for this article and is the managing editor for M&L.