Spiritual impact of COVID-19: Christian pastors, artists recount experiences while battling COVID-19

An attendee raises his hands to the sky during a drive-in Easter service amid the Coronavirus pandemic at the International Church of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sunday, April 12, 2020.
An attendee raises his hands to the sky during a drive-in Easter service amid the Coronavirus pandemic at the International Church of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sunday, April 12, 2020. | AFP via Getty Images/BRIDGET BENNETT

New York City megachurch Pastor A.R. Bernard’s battle with COVID-19 was a lonely one. He was placed on oxygen, watched his life flash before his eyes, and began to have out-of-body experiences when he was hospitalized in March.  

Bernard, the 67-year-old pastor of Brooklyn’s 37,000-member Christian Cultural Center, said the virus desensitized him to death and the “spirituality of death.” And it forced him to reckon with the reality of darkness.

“I began to shake, my body began to tremor uncontrollably, and things began to get dark,” Bernard said in an interview with The Christian Post. “I was sleeping. But every time I closed my eyes to go to sleep, I felt like I was floating in the dark. It became increasingly intense.”

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According to the COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. and its territories have reported more than 6.7 million cases of the coronavirus and over 191,300 deaths related to COVID-19 as of Sunday. Globally, COVID-19 has affected nearly 30 million people and factored into the deaths of over 957,900, according to data from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

"I'm watching people being brought in on stretchers, sitting up and taken into other rooms, and then within a half-hour, sometimes an hour, they were carried out, laid down with a sheet over their faces,” Bernard said. “People were dying around me and I inquired, of course, and found out that it was COVID related.” 

With nearly 1 million worldwide perishing after contracting COVID-19, some have wondered what spiritual impact the virus is having and whether there is a demonic component to it. 

CP interviewed Christian pastors and performers who’ve contracted the virus to talk about their experiences and any spiritual revelations they might have had as they battled the illness. 

Many patients died alone due to hospital restrictions on visitors, and Bernard recalled his experience as being extremely “lonely” as his health took a severe decline.

With a preexisting condition of asthma, the respected minister said he was placed on oxygen while he literally watched life flash before his eyes. 

"I prayed and said, 'Lord this is all in your hands.’ And I began to reflect on life and ministry, etc.,” he recalled. “By the end of the day, they took me to the room, and I began to experience isolation and the feelings of isolation.”

He explained that his hospital room was completely enclosed and he was kept isolated from others.

Within a day, his health declined. His breathing was labored and he lost his sense of taste and smell. The minister’s feet also turned purple. 

A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn N.Y., 2020
A.R. Bernard, senior pastor of Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn N.Y., 2020 | CCC

The pastor said he had out-of-body experiences where he could see himself “walking around the room” even though he knew that he “didn't leave the bed.”

He also said his experiences made it feel as though he was “opening the door and looking down the hallway” even though he didn't get out of the bed.

At the same time, doctors began a regular treatment with hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and injections of anticoagulants (to prevent blood clotting). 

His strange experiences did not cease there, however. Then came the nightmares. 

"So this thing was affecting me physically and now with that kind of physical and mental experience, the theme became darkness," Bernard described. "I felt myself distant from even the people who were coming into the room, the doctors and nurses."

Harvard psychologist and dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. concluded in an international survey that there are pandemic-related dreams, with vivid dreams about bugs topping the list of “crazy COVID-19 nightmares.”

According to Bernard, doctors and nurses were completely in protective gear while attending to his medical needs. He described seeing them in masks, shields, caps and full-body covering. He observed sensing fear from the medical experts around him who “were in fear for their own lives.” 

Is there a 'spiritual component' to COVID-19?

In a recent interview with CP, Dr. Mark Sherwood, a naturopathic doctor from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he does believe there's a spiritual component to COVID-19 and it’s being activated by fear.

“There is a spiritual battle here going on because I think the Bible says clearly that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. So let's talk about what God did not give us and that's that spirit of fear,” Sherwood said.

“When we are being constantly bombarded with the drip of fear in media or posts or even podcasts, it does affect the immune system. Chronic fear, not healthy fear, ... will absolutely deteriorate the effectiveness of the immune system, making you less resilient.”

Sherwood maintained that it's a problematic environment to live in. 

Doctors Michele L. Neil-Sherwood and Mark Sherwood
Doctors Michele L. Neil-Sherwood and Mark Sherwood | Functional Medical Institute

“The spiritual component is we're going to wear a mask, we're going to wear gloves, we're going to stay away from people because people, we’re scared of them. We're not going to meet together because we're scared. And that's perpetuating fear,” Sherwood observed. “So the concept is, we must not live in fear. If we live in fear. We're going to be going contrary to the Word of God.”

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Pastor Charles Billingsley, who also contracted the coronavirus in April and spent about three weeks battling the virus and was hospitalized, knows all too well the fear that attaches itself to COVID-19. 

“I'd go downstairs and my whole family cleared the room, even my dogs were scared of me, for crying out loud!” he told CP in an interview back in May. 

“So you have this psychological side of this whole thing. Then the emotional side because it just lasts forever and it wears on you. And because of that, from the spiritual perspective of things, I was doing my best just to stay in the Word and keep my mind stayed on the Lord and praying and asking the Lord to heal me.”

Billingsley spent his COVID-19 battle seeking God’s face in worship. But it wasn't until he was in the hospital and in total isolation that he “really had some very powerful moments with the Lord.”

“Some good and not so good,” he said. 

The teaching pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, never expected that he’d be in the battle for his life leading up to the release of his new album, I Was Made for This.

“I mean, that first night I was in the hospital was Thursday night before Easter,” Billingsly recalled. “I had a new record coming out the next day. And I was so frustrated because I couldn't do any interviews or talk to anybody. Here I am, and I asked the Lord to heal me. It was one of those moments where I thought, you know what, I'm just going to ask Him for a miracle. He can heal me if He wants to heal me. ‘Lord, you can heal me right this second.’”

Musician Charles Billingsley performs during a service at the American Association of Christian Counselors' three day meeting focusing on mental health and the church, in Nashville, Tennessee, September 24, 2015.
Musician Charles Billingsley performs during a service at the American Association of Christian Counselors' three day meeting focusing on mental health and the church, in Nashville, Tennessee, September 24, 2015. | Courtesy of American Association of Christian Counselors

He said that he imagined that he was like the woman described in Luke 8 who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed of her bleeding.

“Here I am laying in this hospital bed and I'm reaching out as though I'm this lady reaching out for the hem of His garment,” Billingsly detailed. “I was just seeking the Lord and praying. I really believed He would heal me in that moment and was expecting a miracle. I was expecting to just call the nurses and the doctors and say, ‘Hey, I'm good. I'll see you later.’ And that's not what happened. As I laid there, half the night wide awake, I got more frustrated and more frustrated, and then I got angry and disappointed and disillusioned.”

As for Bernard, he was feeling overwhelmed by what was happening to his health and directed his attention to God.

"The loneliness, the isolation became very real. The nightmares became more intense and dark. I got to a place where I was so physically and emotionally overwhelmed,” the pastor admitted. “I was wondering whether I was going to make it. At that point, I found peace in God's providence. I said, 'OK Lord, nothing takes You by surprise. You knew where I would be at this time of my life and I'm leaving it all in your hands.’”

In the midst of “so much darkness,” the pastor said he began to meditate. 

“The Holy Spirit brought to me the scripture in John 1, where it says, ‘and the light shined in the darkness.’ In the amplified Bible, it says, 'the darkness could not comprehend, could not overtake it, could not absorb it.’

“I remembered so vividly looking at the text in my mind from the page that began to give me strength because God's providence and my surrender to providence gave me peace, but not strength. But when the scripture, that text came alive in a deeply profound way, I began to gain strength.”

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