Ark. church coronavirus infections rise to 37 as it grieves death of beloved greeter

Greers Ferry First Assembly in Arkansas.
Greers Ferry First Assembly in Arkansas. | Facebook/Greers Ferry First Assembly

Greers Ferry First Assembly in Cleburne County, Arkansas, is now mourning their beloved long time greeter who passed away Tuesday from the new coronavirus as the number of infected persons connected to the church rose to 37 Wednesday, their pastor said.

“We currently have 37 that have tested positive, with only a small handful that are still waiting on test results," Pastor Mark Palenske said in a statement on Facebook Wednesday. "Many of us are recovering from a long list of symptoms that seem to be common with this virus, and we certainly appreciate the hints of restored health that are headed our way. We are familiar with the expanding scope of the Covid-19 crisis and that daily individuals are being treated and advised accordingly. Our prayers are that God would strengthen them just as he did with us. Please continue to listen to the public directives that we are being guided with.”

Palenske mourned the death of 91-year-old William “Bill” Barton, who died Tuesday morning at Conway Regional Medical Center.

“With the consent of his family, I acknowledge that our 91 year old greeter has passed away. 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,” the pastor said.

He then revealed how the beloved greeter retired from his post several years ago but returned because it was too difficult for him.

“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,” he said.

The church will celebrate Barton’s life as a “precious gift from God” church but Palenske could not state when that will be due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

“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," he said. "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.”

Barton's death was the second coronavirus fatality in the state, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. The first was a 59-year-old Sherwood man who had underlying health issues.

Days before, Palenske, who is recovering from the coronavirus along with his wife Dena, warned others not to underestimate how dangerous the virus is and treat it with “wisdom and restraint.”

“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 in an earlier statement on Facebook.

“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.”

Pastor Mark Palenske and his wife Dena.
Pastor Mark Palenske and his wife Dena. | Facebook/Mark Palenske

Palenske and other officials at his church previously stated that church members and others connected to the church started getting sick after a children’s crusade earlier this month. On Wednesday, he clarified that the event took place on March 6-8 instead of March 5-8 as previously stated.

He also emphasized to the public that they did not flout any local restrictions on gathering and members of his church started getting sick prior to the first case of coronavirus being diagnosed in the state.

“The Kid’s ministry event was held the weekend of March 6th-8th, several days before there was even a confirmed case in Arkansas. Our last service was Wednesday, March 11th. We canceled services prior to anyone in our church testing positive, and prior to any local, state or national directive. We cherished the wise council of local medical professionals, and their quick and decisive actions more than likely have kept the effects of this virus from going even farther than it has,” Palenske stated.

Of the more than 300 cases of coronavirus in Arkansas, officials revealed that more than 10 are children. Data from Johns Hopkins as of Thursday morning showed that more than 69,000 people across the U.S. have been infected with the coronavirus and there are now just over 1,000 deaths. Approximately 25% of those deaths are in New York City. Global figures stood at nearly 500,000 infections and more than 22,000 deaths.

Officials say the outbreak of the virus at Greers Ferry First Assembly of God is responsible for the spread of the disease in the relatively small Cleburne County which has a population of 25,000. The county now has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the state.

"It appears, from what I know at this time, most of the cases that we have in our county" are related to the Greers Ferry church, Jerry Holmes, county judge of Cleburne County, told the Gazette.

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