'Faith outweighs fear,' says pastor of church where 37 members have contracted coronavirus

Mark Palenske and his wife Dena are among the dozens to have caught coronavirus at the First Assemblies of God Church(Photo: Facebook/Mark Palenske)

The pastor of a church where 37 members have contracted coronavirus is urging people to take it "very seriously". 

Pastor Mark Palenske and his wife Dena are among those at the First Assemblies of God Church in Greers Ferry, Arkansas, to have contracted the virus, with his wife being one of several to be hospitalised.

He confirmed that one parishioner, 91-year-old Bill Barton, who served as a greeter at the church, had died in the last few days after testing positive.

A few members of the church are still awaiting test results. 

He admitted the outbreak had pushed him to the limits as he pleaded with people to do whatever they could to protect themselves and others from contracting the virus.

"There was very little in my training for the ministry that covered the full measure of what our church family has dealt with in the past few weeks," he said.

"The intensity of this virus has been underestimated by so many, and I continue to ask that each of you take it very seriously. An act of wisdom and restraint on your part can be the blessing that preserves the health of someone else."

He wrote: "This virus is highly contagious and it is no respecter of persons.

"It seemingly picks its victim at random, so it's best to remain very vigilant in hygiene protocols to the very best of your abilities."

Deacon Donald Shipp told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that 31 church staffers and members who had attended a recent children's ministry event had since been diagnosed with COVID-19 . 

In spite of the large number of infections at his church, Pastor Palenske pleaded with people not to give in to fear but to live by faith. 

"I trust my fellow citizens to rise up and meet this challenge," he said.

"We are not invincible, but we learned centuries ago that faith outweighs fear. We learned that God, when given a place in our homes and in our lives, orders our steps." 

He said the church would gather to hold a memorial for Mr Barton once restrictions had been lifted. 

Paying tribute on Facebook, he said: "Bill Barton was the first encounter in our First Assembly experience. Each Sunday, the door would be opened for you and a white-haired, well-dressed gentlemen would extend a characteristic smile.

"It had been his post for years. He retired from the position several years ago, but returned after only a few months, saying that he really didn't want to give it up.

"Our hearts are broken, and his family is feeling his loss deeply. When we are able, and can gather confidently, (I don't know when that will be) we will celebrate his life as a precious gift from God.

"Bill loved the Lord deeply and his heart was so tender to the presence of God. His life was immensely transformed by God's grace, and I am assured that the 'greeter' has indeed been greeted into heaven itself. Your continued prayers for his family are greatly appreciated." 

He went on to encourage his congregation to staying in faith that there would be an end to the pandemic.

"I hope that you will let me conclude this post with an encouragement to you. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by our current circumstances," he said.

"Our isolation can put us in a very vulnerable situation. We can find ourselves flooded with information and reports that tend to emotionally burden us.

"I am not telling you to ignore what is happening, but I'm telling you to approach it with your health in mind. Despite the most severe circumstances, our faith still anchors us in the storm. That faith, the power of friendship, and family mean that the clouds will indeed part soon."