RUMFORD — Justin Thacker has seen the consequences of isolation and despair from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while fulfilling his dual roles as a minister and a school teacher.

Pastor Justin Thacker Submitted photo

“As a pastor and high school history teacher, I have never lived or worked under such conditions,” said the spiritual leader of Praise Assembly of God Church and instructor at Oxford Hills Christian Academy.

“I found it to be extremely difficult emotionally for many people” from March through May, the 42-year-old Andover resident said. “I learned just how much the average person needs fellowship with others, accountability from others, and physical touch from others to satisfy the mental, physical and spiritual needs of each person.”

Thacker has pastored the church at 89 Congress St. for 17 years and taught at Oxford Hills Christian Academy in Oxford four four years. Those jobs have given him an inside look at how the pandemic has effected those he serves.

Isolation at home can produce grave consequences, he said.

“It is unfortunate to declare that I lost three individuals (all in their 20s) to suicide this spring,” Thacker said. “As the epidemic raged and economy and jobs were lost, loneliness increased, one’s case management and/or in home support declined or became nonexistent, depression and lack of hope became extremely overwhelming.”

He said he’s also witnessed people suffer from isolation in nursing homes.

“Visits are not allowed and many residents are enduring the consequences of isolation every day,” he said. “Talking on the phone or Face Chat is great, but it cannot replace a physical visit, especially when the epidemic becomes long term with no idea if normalcy will ever return.”

Thacker noted how difficult it is for a family who has lost a loved one not be allowed to hold a memorial or funeral service.

“How does a person grieve when you can never say goodbye?” he asked.

“Another lesson I learned is that life goes on even as the attention of the entire world is on COVID-19,” he said, including education.

When schools closed in mid-March, parents were completely unprepared to watch or educate their children for three months, he said.

“As a teacher, several students did not do well with digital learning and basically gave up on their education by the second week of April,” he said. “Parents attempted to encourage and help their children, but simply were not equipped.”

As a result, there was a lot of idle time as students of all ages were isolated at home with no desire to continue their education through the spring, Thacker said.

“As a pastor, several parents called upon me for help,” he said. “Some parents asked me to tutor their children digitally, some asked for a mentorship, some asked for pastoral counseling to help the mental health of their children, some asked for help for themselves via prayer or counseling, and some just simply wanted a shoulder to cry on.

“Unfortunately, due to professional demands placed upon me by many, social distancing, and just not enough time in the day to help everyone, this was not always possible,” he said. “Many days I worked over 16 hours simply trying to help as many people as I could.”

As for his role of pastor, the church was able to livestream services on Facebook and hold Zoom conferences for meeting preparation and times of fellowship when churches were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“I am grateful during this time that folks were extremely understanding, faithfully participated in Facebook and Zoom services, and amazing and generous givers,” he said.

After Gov. Janet Mills declared churches could reopen May 29 under CDC guidelines, Thacker held a public service May 31.

“We are only permitted to have 50 people, but it is a start,” he said, adding that they enforce the strict CDC guidelines as much as possible.

“Our food pantry, clothing closet, church office and pastoral appointments have reopened to in-person service with CDC guidelines,” he said. “For the most part, the community has expressed their approval and appreciation for our existence on Congress Street,” Thacker said.

Community members donated over $2,000 to the Compassion Ministry Department, which operates the pantry and clothing closet, and provides assistance for energy and rental expenses, help for fire victims, domestic violence victims, and others.

“We are so blessed to be part of a great community in the River Valley,” Thacker said.

“What I have been through could not have been taught in seminary or college,” he noted, adding that as a pastor and teacher he’s been taking it one day at a time.

“Not knowing what the future holds, I am not taking anything for granted, but trying to be the best pastor and teacher I can be during this pandemic that may have no immediate end,” he said.

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