On a per capita basis, sparsely populated Castro County in the western Texas Panhandle has been harder hit by the coronavirus pandemic than most places in the state. The majority of cases come from Nazareth, a town of about 300 people, and county officials say the spread of the virus may have started at a high school basketball tournament in early March.
Ten people in the city have tested positive for COVID-19, and one person has died, according to state data.
Bob Birkenfeld is a deacon at Holy Family Catholic Church. A Nazareth native, Birkenfeld says the community is tightly knit, connected by their German heritage. The pandemic, he says, has caused him to “look at people in a whole different light.” He’s encouraging parishioners to reach out to those “on the fringe” – people like widows or widowers who might be alone or especially lonely during this time of social distancing.
“It’s not like this is down the road 50, 60 miles. No, this is right here in town,” he says.
Younger generations have been singled out in the media for not taking seriously the threat of COVID-19. But Birkenfeld says that’s not the case in Nazareth. One high school student there is among those who’ve tested positive for the disease. A school employee also fell ill.
“It’s made us take this serious,” he says.
But he also says it’s changed, for the better, the way residents go about their daily lives. Without school or the ability to be out and about, there’s more time for reflection, and even the opportunity for some to reignite their spirituality.
Masses are suspended until further notice, but Birkenfeld is connecting with parishioners online. For example, he’s giving them tips on how to celebrate Holy Week at home. Holy Week started with Palm Sunday and ends this weekend on Easter Sunday.
Despite all the hardship, Birkenfeld says the pandemic has been a wake-up call for his community. He says self-reliance and personal success have become too important.
“If we get to the end of this and we’ve made some new habits that have formed in the house due to praying as a family and looking out for each other … and then extending that beyond the doors of our house, then I think we got God’s message out of this,” he says.
Written by Caroline Covington.