FAIRMONT — Sixteen months after COVID-19 hit West Virginia, Anthony Horton remains in shock after losing his older sister, two nieces and an aunt to the coronavirus.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her and, when I look back at my choir, she’s not in her spot back there. That’s something that just remains a constant and we miss her tremendously,” Horton said speaking of his aunt Viola Horton, who was the first COVID-19 death reported in West Virginia.

Horton, who plays a leadership role in the choir at Fairmont’s Morningstar Baptist Church, was one of approximately 85 area residents who attended a service Sunday afternoon at Windmill Park to memorialize Marion County residents who died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

“This gives people an opportunity to heal also,” Horton said. “We’ve been away from each other, as individuals for a year-and-a-half. We actually got to hug people today and that’s a forgotten art.

“This pandemic has hit our family awfully.”

Sponsored by the Greater Fairmont Area Council of Churches, the Pastoral Alliance for Social Justice and Change and Marion County Communities of Shalom Inc., the service included scripture readings, special musical guests and a Hebrew prayer.

“God, full of compassion, dwelling on high, grant perfect rest with the holy and pure, shining like the radiance of the firmament to the spirits of our dear departed who entered the realm beyond time and space,” said Cyndi Straight, as she read a prayer written by Rabbi Joseph Hample, of Tree of Life Congregation, of Morgantown.

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 52 Marion County residents have died due to COVID-19. In neighboring Harrison County, there have been 82 residents die from the coronavirus and 91 in Monongalia County.

Leo Riley, pastor of Agape Life Ministries in East Side, helped organize Sunday’s service. He said it’s difficult for him to find words to express how COVID-19 uprooted not only his ministry, but every other aspect of life.

“When COVID first broke out, I as a pastor, had to figure out how to close the church down. That goes against everything that we ever believed — for years we’ve been preaching, ‘Come to church, get people out to church,’ then all of a sudden, on the turn of a dime, we had to figure out how to have people not come to church,” Riley said.

With the church closings, Riley said, he and his colleagues had to devise a safe way to minister to the elderly and shut-ins, as well as those who had been affected by the virus.

“Now, we’re at the point of ‘How do we start back church?’ and that is devastating as well, especially among the African-American community where we had so many losses in this area here alone,” Riley said. “It affected everything we do, everything we do as pastors.”

Riley is looking forward to the day where COVID-19 is no longer part of daily conversation. He and Horton both take every opportunity they can to urge people to get a vaccination for the virus.

“Whatever gifts God has given us, we have to keep moving forward to the best of our abilities, even if it’s giving somebody a smile now, or when you can, a hug, if possible, or a kind word,” he said. “We have to come together in unity.

Reach Eric Cravey at 304-367-2523.

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