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9 coronavirus deaths in Harlem church overwhelm pastor

(CNN) — The Rev. Johnnie Green dreads answering his cell phone these days, fearing another call about a member of his Harlem congregation succumbing to the coronavirus.

Mount Neboh Baptist Church, a fixture in the cultural center of black America, has lost 11 parishioners in the last month, nine to Covid-19, according to Green and church members. Two died of natural causes.

“We deal with death all the time but we’ve never had to deal with a succession of death like now,” said Green, who has been ministering to his flock via Facebook Live and Zoom from the dining room of his New Jersey home. “It was as if every other day I was getting a call that another parishioner had passed.”

Even after four decades in the ministry, the experience overwhelms Green. The mounting death toll leaves little time for propergrieving.

“We see a lot of violence,” Green said via Zoom. “We see gang activity from time to time. I’ve had to preside over the funerals of kids who were literally killed outside the doors of the church. But we’ve never seen anything like this.”

The pandemic has hit black Americans especially hard. It has fallen on Green’s close-knit congregation with unrelenting ferocity.

Black people are more likely than other Americans to have underlying health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease. They’re also statistically more likely to live in poverty, with less access to health insurance.

“You know that saying, “When white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia,” said Green, 57, a Dallas native.

From behind Mount Neboh’s wrought iron gates and six ionic columns, the former synagogue is an early symbol of the ravages of the pandemic in African American communities across the country.

“I have never lost that many church members in thirty days,” said Green, the pastor since 2006. “It’s unfathomable. These are people who five weeks ago were sitting in the congregation. These were active members. People who sang in the choir and served in the ministry.”

Only pastor attended graveside service

The first parishioner to die from the virus was Cathy Williams, 65, a choir leader and minister in training. She was at church the second Sunday in March, according to the pastor.

“She took ill on Monday and went in the hospital on Tuesday,” Green said. “Six days later she was gone. She was wonderful. A mother and grandmother… Her family ran a laundry business for years.”

Nia Mensah, 39, a physical therapist who has been volunteering on a prayer hotline set up for anxious parishioners, recalled that Williams sang at her wedding in 2010.

“Her passing broke my heart,” Mensah said.

On Monday, Green presided over a graveside service for Williams at a New Jersey cemetery. Only one person was allowed to attend. Her family designated him as their representative. He took pictures for them.

“They came from Harlem to the cemetery in a procession and then they had to leave because of the restrictions,” Green said.

On video, son tells dying mom he loves her

The virus also claimed the life of Shirley Miller, 70, a deaconess who assisted with baptisms and communion. She was a retired school crossing guard.

“She was all about the family,” recalled her 36-year-old son, Frederick, a minister at Mount Neboh.

Miller told him she wasn’t feeling well when he visited on March 13. She had a hard time sitting up. Still, the next day she attended his girlfriend’s baby shower. “I remember her smiling,” he said.

Three days later, Shirley Miller, lapsing in and out of consciousness, was rushed by ambulance to a hospital.

Her last words to her daughter: “Tell Fred, don’t worry about me. Don’t come to the hospital. Make sure his girlfriend and the baby are good,” according to her son. She was intubated that day.

On March 24, a doctor called Frederick Miller. His mother wasn’t going to make it. A nurse set up a brief video chat. Through a partition he could see his mother behind a tangle of IV lines and breathing tubes.

“I told her I loved her and missed her, not knowing that was the last time I would see her,” he said over the phone. “She couldn’t see or hear me but I believe she (felt) me.”

Shirley Miller died a few hours later.

“People need to take this seriously,” Frederick Miller said. “This virus not only killed my mother and eight people from Mount Neboh, but I know at least 15 other people who have passed from it.”

Pastor recites names of the deceased

Mount Neboh has 1,200 members from throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, Green said. Between 500 and 600 worshipers filled its pews most Sundays before the virus locked down New York City, an epicenter of the pandemic.

“We have people who are essential workers,” the pastor said. “They work for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. They work in group homes and nursing homes and hospitals. So many people were stricken so fast we were not even able to trace of the origin.”

The Rev. Sandra Baker, executive pastor, began reciting the names of the deceased church members — mostly women — during an interview the other day, one after the other: “Let me see, deaconess Miller, deaconess Cathy Williams, trustee Ruthann, mother Helen … Mrs. Datcher, trustee Thomas…”

She paused, then added, “They showed up at Sunday school. They showed up at Bible enrichment leadership training. They were involved in the life of the church. They realized when you have a relationship with the Lord it’s more than just on Sunday morning. Some of them were great listeners.”

Reverend leans on fellow clergy for support

The deaths were like they lost nine family members at one time, Mensah said.

“For me, it’s like losing a few aunties,” she said. “These were people who encouraged me over the years.”

She fondly remembered Michelle Donaldson, the most recent fatality.

“She was the sweetest spirit,” Mensah recalled. “She just gave the biggest hugs. Always smiling, even if she wasn’t feeling well. She was always so warm. To know I won’t see her again, on this side, is devastating.

Donaldson, a choir singer, was in her late 50s. She had underlying health issues, the pastor said. She died in her Harlem apartment.

“She loved my kids,” Mensah said. “I’m on the dance ministry. She knows I loved to dance. My children love to dance. She called us ‘the Soul Train family.’”

Green himself became ill around the second Sunday in March. He said he had the now familiar symptoms of the virus. He wasn’t tested. He was diagnosed with what a doctor said was a severe sinus infection and respiratory issues. Green said he was prescribed antibiotics and told to quarantine at home, where he has recovered.

He has been leaning on fellow clergy members and friends in states such as Illinois and Louisiana, where the virus has also devastated black communities.

“This is what’s getting me through right now,” he said. “Now I’m looking at how long is it going to take our church to recover? How long for us to rebuild? The members we lost were iconic. Some were the pillars of this church. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to normalcy.”