By R.L. Witter
It took some time to get an interview with Rev. Dr. Lester Taylor, Jr. As senior pastor of Community Baptist Church of Englewood (CBCofE) in Englewood, NJ, Rev. Dr. Taylor has always been a busy man of purpose and substance, but these last several months have tried his physical and mental stamina like nothing ever before. “We’re grappling with the enormity of death,” he said quietly via speakerphone. After texting back and forth we had finally settled on this particular afternoon for our conversation. Rev. Dr. Taylor’s mornings are almost always full these days performing funerals for his congregants and others. “It’s overwhelming,” he sighed. “Our local funeral director has done the volume in six to eight weeks they would normally do in a year. Our church had lost around 15 people by the end of May.”
Taylor’s experiences are not purely professional; COVID-19 touched his family. “The day my mother-in-law died we lost two other people,” he explained. His mother-in-law, Charlotte Green, was in an assisted living facility when she tested positive for the virus in late March. A two-time lung cancer survivor and diabetic, the 89-year-old succumbed to COVID-19 shortly thereafter. “We cannot honor the deceased in traditional fashion,” Rev. Taylor lamented. “We can’t do home or hospital visits, and can’t go to the bedside when someone is transitioning.” On April 8, 2020, a memorial service was held in the CBCofE parking lot where friends and loved ones had gathered in their cars to pay their respects as Mother Green’s hearse drove by.
“All ages are impacted; some didn’t have pre-existing conditions. Thank God some recovered,” said Taylor. “I was comforting one woman who was upset she couldn’t be with her mother and was wondering if anyone had been with her, if they really took care of her mother or just let her lie there and die.” He talked about the emotional toll of the pandemic on survivors and loved ones. “We’re people of gathering, so the first thing we do is go to the home or the hospital to have a prayer or bring a dish — none of that, no consolation. It’s going to require a lot of counseling when this pandemic eases because people are spiraling from this.”
These strange times have forced Rev. Taylor and his fellow clergy and faith leaders to think on their feet and reimagine how people worship when they cannot come to the church, temple, or other edifice as usual. Knowing church is the center of socialization for many older congregants, Taylor and the CBCofE team have organized online bible studies and worships, as well as video messages of encouragement and hope. He knows the physical isolation coupled with loss and grief can be devastating. “The human tragedy obviously is the loss, the death toll, the rate of infection; but there’s another tragedy called life and what I mean by that is once someone passes on, the family members are in a time warp, just stuck in that moment because all around you life is going on as though nothing happened.” He continued, “Those who are grieving are still in a fog while everyone else seems to go about their business. It’s the deafening volume of silence.”
With the COVID-19 related restrictions and precautions around funeral and memorial services in the area, Taylor often finds himself with only one or two people graveside while others attend online. “I’ve discovered regardless of how brief it might be, it’s still significant and impacting and families are very appreciative; it’s heartwarming,” he said.
“I think this novel coronavirus is just the first of many pandemics we will experience in the future. And I believe what has come out of this is a real awareness of how we need to practice good hygiene and social distancing,” Taylor said. As president of the General Baptist Convention of New Jersey (GBCNJ), Taylor is considering protocols for churches going forward so that congregants may worship safely once the doors to the physical church have reopened. “We’ll open in phases. For example, we’ll only focus on worship so there won’t be any in-person auxiliary meetings or that sort of thing, because we’ve managed those well via social media, Zoom, Microsoft Team, and the like. We might have to add an additional worship service to accommodate social distancing.” He also mentioned things like pre-registering to attend services and converting church facilities to touchfree. “We are now investigating the cost to convert all restroom equipment over to touch-free,” meaning faucets, toilets urinals, etc. He’s already planning to have specific people designated to open and close doors, thus minimalizing the spread of germs.
As he continues to shepherd his flock, Rev. Taylor is well aware of the toll these last few months have taken on him and other clergy members. He urges them to make time to practice self-care. “It may be a walk in the park, a bike ride, or a Sunday drive,” he said. “But it’s something to restore and replenish the body, the psyche, and the physicality of a minister to stay balanced and healthy.” That advice is good for the rest of us, too. In closing, Rev. Taylor stressed the importance of practicing what we know as people of faith, kindness, service, and humanity. “Worship is no substitute for service,” he said. “Our worship is unto God, but our service is unto humanity.”