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Walton County pastor shares how COVID has impacted his church and his health

Pastor Ronnie McBrayer
Courtesy photo
Pastor Ronnie McBrayer

The past 19 months during the pandemic have been difficult, to say the least. And that’s no truer statement for Ronnie McBrayer.

McBrayer is a founding pastor at A Simple Faith Church in Santa Rosa Beach. Since March 2020, he’s prayed for his community during the COVID-19 crisis, grieved over dozens of loved ones, found ways to attend to spiritual needs — albeit virtually — he’s even battled the virus himself.

“I would say pastoral care load is greater than it’s ever been, even though the in-person numbers are smaller than they’ve ever been,” said McBrayer. “My referrals that I make to marriage counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals — those are all at an all-time high.”

At the height of the pandemic, McBrayer said the biggest hurdle was finding a way to connect.

“I could remember distinctly the Sunday we made the decision in March 2020 to go to online services which was a challenge for myself and for our real small staff — we’re a small church,” said McBrayer. “Those of us who were trained in church ministry and theology had to get a crash course in technology.”

On the church’s YouTube page are dozens of videos from recorded services and musical numbers. In a service called “Love in the time of COVID,” from March 15, 2020, just four days after the World Health Organization declared the pandemic, McBrayer offers a message of hope.

“The time of crisis calls for faith, not fear, helping not hoarding, perseverance not panic, love and courage not retreat and self-protection,” he said. “When it is the darkest, we have to be the ones to shine the light.”

Thanks to technology, McBrayer’s weekly services have reached more people than in-person services ever could, he said. And even though it’s virtual, the connection is still very real.

“It has been unusual in many ways not to be in the physical presence of people,” he said. “It’s been unusual to do Zoom funerals and memorial services which I’ve done.”

In the United States, more than 700,000 have died from COVID. McBrayer has kept a personal tab on the loved ones in his life that he’s lost to the virus.

“My list now exceeds 42 people,” he said. “I’ve never had a season in my life where I’ve had that much loss of people that I know from a single cause.”

McBrayer thinks back to the 1918 Spanish Flu — the last global pandemic — when he reflects on COVID. He can’t help but think of his grandmother, who was just 6 years old when she lost her mother and grandmother within weeks to the disease.

“She was raised by an older sister — one of those large farming families and there was 15 years between the youngest child and oldest child — and she never fully recovered from that,” he recalled. “There are some things you don’t recover from, you integrate them.”

In February of this year, McBrayer contracted COVID from his wife, who was a teacher for Walton County School District. She was sick for three days. McBrayer says he was nearly killed by the virus and is still suffering long-term effects. He takes trips to Nashville to be treated by Vanderbilt University’s Adult Post-Acute COVID Clinic.

“I have had a persistent cough since the first day I tested positive,” McBrayer said listing his symptoms. “Tachycardia — a racing heart rate that’s quite unpredictable, shortness of breath, brain fog, fatigue, chest pain.”

There’s been a divide between those who will wear a mask and those who won’t. Those who will get vaccinated and those who share misinformation about its effectiveness. And religious leaders have been at the frontlines on both sides, from Tennessee Pastor Greg Locke who vocally opposed COVID-19 protocols toJacksonville pastor George Davis who pleaded with his congregation to get vaccinated after seven churchgoers died of COVID within a 10-day period. They were all unvaccinated.

McBrayer has experienced most facets of the pandemic. From the grieving loss of life, learning new technology, and then battling the virus itself. He says it’s disheartening when people reject the seriousness of the virus.

“To deny that COVID exists is to deny reality and I really don’t know how to engage individuals that are denying the facts on the ground as they present themselves and it’s frustrating,” he said.

In his “Love in the time of COVID” sermon, he tells churchgoers to listen to health care professionals and scientists. He worries about the long-term post-trauma for those on the frontlines.

“When folks are willingly — willingly — ignoring the tragedy that’s taking place in our communities, it’s hard for the communities to recover from that,” he said.

And when it comes to wearing a mask or getting the vaccine, McBrayer boils it down to one popular Biblical phrase: “love thy neighbor.”

“We deprive or limit ourselves. We wear a mask, we take a vaccine not because we’re surrendering to government tyranny but we do it — I do it — so as not to harm my neighbor,” he said. “Getting sick myself with COVID, OK, I got sick with COVID, I can live with that. What I did not want to live with was passing that disease to someone else.”

“I think that change of perspective would help us all and help our community.”

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.