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2022 Lawton, Oklahoma Chautauqua June 21 - 25

U.S. COVID-19 deaths surpasses 800,000

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 800,000 people in the United States have died because of COVID. That number was once unimaginable but was reached this week. And though there are vaccines, there is also a winter surge of omicron, a new variant. These have been hard times for families, for friends, colleagues and for people around the world.

We want to take a moment to recognize just how hard that's been. Pastor Jesse Rincones is executive director of the Baptist Hispanic Convention of Texas. It's a collection of over a thousand Baptist congregations in the state, and he joins us now. Pastor, thanks so much for being with us.

JESSE RINCONES: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: I don't know a better or worse way to begin than what's this year - two years, really - been like for you and your congregants?

RINCONES: Well, you know, early in the pandemic, someone noted that we were all in the same storm, but not in the same boat. And as we survey congregations across the state of Texas, even the pandemic storms that the churches faced varied across the state. There were some churches that never closed in-person services and others, at the other extreme, that waited eight or nine months until after most churches had opened. And they did this 'cause they had many deaths and members on ventilators. And it's been a challenging year and a half.

SIMON: Yeah. And, pastor, I understand you lost your mother to cancer this past year.

RINCONES: We did. And because of the COVID restrictions, you know, she spent the last 25 days of her life in a nursing home, and we were able to see her through a window.

SIMON: Yeah.

RINCONES: Luckily, my brother, sister and I had the privilege of spending the last eight and a half hours of her life with her in person. And, of course, from there, we went directly to isolation for a week 'cause she had contracted COVID while she was at the nursing home. So that was just one...

SIMON: My gosh.

RINCONES: ...A personal example of hundreds of thousands of experiences that others have gone through dealing with grief in ways that we never imagined before.

SIMON: I'm sorry, pastor. Health care and essential workers have borne so much for so many of us. Have you been able to speak with many who were your congregants?

RINCONES: You know, they find themselves in such a difficult situation, serving every day and ministering to people. And they're caught in the middle of the same arguments and pressures that people are - find themselves every day, whether the pressure to get a vaccine or not get a vaccine or to serve and minister to others and the calling that they've had and being caught in the middle of arguments that are going on in politics or in our community. And so besides the regular strain of helping and serving people and dealing with the additional deaths, they're also caught in the middle of these arguments that people are having back and forth every day.

SIMON: Pastor Rincones, how do you offer people comfort and joy in times like these?

RINCONES: Well, you know, in this Advent season, we've been exploring the gifts of hope, the gift of peace, the gift of love. And when we don't see it around us, when there's a lack of peace in the - in D.C., in the political conversations, on social media, we've been given a gift to be able to at least produce peace around us. We can't control those things that are beyond our influence. But we have homes. We've got neighbors, parents of kids who go to school with our kids, people in our community that we have the opportunity to provide hope and love and peace for them in the hopes that they might be able to find it somewhere and in a level high enough that it could encourage them to continue to move forward.

SIMON: I want to take the advantage of being able to talk to a wise and experienced member of the clergy...

RINCONES: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...To ask a question that I - that's been roiling me, if you don't mind. You know, I've covered 10 wars, and I remember learning in so many of them that people would say, well, the hardest thing is not knowing when it would end. And I think a lot of people have been feeling that way about COVID.

RINCONES: Absolutely. You know, everyone's tired. They're tired of what they've already gone through. They're tired of what they're - you know, what our circumstances have brought us to. I've talked to pastors who tell me, you know, they're frustrated with the polarization in the community that is also in the pews. One pastor said, no matter what I say from the pulpit, a third of the people in my church are going to get mad at me. And, you know, and others have mentioned that we've lost the ability to disagree and deal with nuance. And it continues to be such a fluid situation with omicron and boosters and inflation and elections coming up that next year doesn't seem to hold much hope for stability or relief. And I think that's where we turn to our faith. And in God, we can find a consistent source of hope and love in peace, and especially this Christmas season.

SIMON: Pastor Jesse Rincones in Texas - thank you so much for being with us, pastor. And if I may, a very good holiday to you, sir.

RINCONES: Thank you, Scott. Very good holiday to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.