SIOUX CITY -- The first surge of deaths from the novel coronavirus dealt a devastating impact on Morningside Lutheran Church.
A member of the Sioux City church, which draws heavily from working class immigrants, was the first metro Sioux City resident to die from COVID-19. Within two months, 17 more with ties to the church succumbed to the respiratory virus.
While there have been no more deaths since then, the loss of life left an indelible mark on the community of southeast Asian immigrants, who predominantly work in metro meat packing plants that experienced COVID outbreaks last spring.
"It was horrible...There was a lot of fear," The Rev. Tom LoVan, pastor of Morningside Lutheran, said this week.
LoVan estimated about 80 percent of the church's Asian community were impacted by coronavirus, whether by the death of a relative or testing positive and having symptoms so severe that they could not work and get regular paychecks.
"I could not believe the numbers. It was just overwhelming in April and May for the Asians," he said.
Now, as the year nears an end and the Christmas message of the birth of a savior is being remembered, LoVan said the congregation is healing. But, with a new wave of the virus spreading in the community, the pastor said the southeast Asian members are wary about coming back to church, just as they are in going out shopping or to other public places.
Morningside Lutheran, founded in 1913, has four Sunday services, with three in the morning, then another at 2 p.m. The latter service is part of the multicultural ministry that began in 1997 when LoVan arrived. The service, attended by members with Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian ties, blends cultures and worship formats, with services conducted by LoVan in both Lao and English languages.
LoVan said in-person church services resumed in August after several months off. But only about 50 or 60 are attending now, compared to the usual 100 worshipers.
One of those who have returned is Amphay Lo, who usually avoids contact outside her home. She and her husband Ha Lo, who are both 56, had the virus in the spring, but he's had more trouble bouncing back.
"In helping us through difficult times, Pastor Tom has been very helpful....We believe in Jesus Christ. Morningside is a good church, with good people. They are very nice and they are helping us through a lot," Amphay Lo said.
LoVan conducted the vast majority of the 18 funerals, most of which, due to state orders at the time, had to be held in funeral homes with only about five people attending. He said that was particularly hard on members of the southeast Asian community, who by nature are very social and wanted to share the difficult time with more people.
The first metro area resident to die from COVID-19 was Raymundo Corral, 64, of Sioux City, who died April 18 at his home. The second area resident to die, Viengxay Khuninh, 69, who died April 24 at his home, had family members who attended the church.
Both Corral and Khuninh worked at the 4,500-employee Tyson Fresh Meats beef plant in Dakota City, where a major outbreak occurred last spring, forcing the company to temporarily close the plant and test all the workers for the virus. A number of positive tests also were reported among workers at the 2,400-employee Seaboard Triumph pork plant in Sioux City.
LoVan is praying the ongoing wave of COVID-19 will claim no more church members.
As of Friday, after considerable virus spread over fall months, there have been nearly 10,800 cases in Woodbury County, plus 139 deaths, including 23 in just the last eight days. Some of the church members, such as Vanh and Kham Keomongkhoune, live in Dakota County not far from the Tyson plant where they both work. In Dakota County there have been 3,317 positive cases and 51 deaths, with 25 of those having occurred by May 30.
This week, LoVan said there are seven Morningside Lutheran Church members who currently have tested positive with coronavirus, four with roots in southeast Asia. Two women in the church vestibule Sunday morning between services were heard discussing an acquaintance who had the virus.
The Lo and Keomongkhoune couples are originally from Laos. They all came to the region more than 30 years ago for jobs with Tyson, then called Iowa Beef Processors. They have long legs in the community, raising children and working double shifts at times in order to pay cash as soon as possible to buy homes and vehicles.
In separate discussions with the Journal on the coronavirus impact, fear of what's ahead was a common theme for the Lo and Keomongkhoune couples, although they all agreed things are much better than six months ago. They knew about six church people who died from COVID-19.
"They are not my relatives, but they are countrymen, friends," Vanh Keomongkhoune said. "We lived together, worked together, partied together."
The Los have two adult children and one grandchild and haven't traveled to see them in South Dakota and Minnesota for almost a year.
"I tell them not to come. It is safer," said Amphay Lo, who wears a face mask "everywhere" she goes outside their home in Sioux City's Morningside neighborhood.
She said they need to take such precautions, since Ha Lo had a very sick month beginning in late April, and his Parkinson's disease has meant a slow recovery. He hasn't been able to work at Tyson for months, and while receiving a monthly disability payment, the family is working to get by on half of their previous income.
The worst symptoms for Ha Lo, who in normal times routinely jogged and lifted weights, included a loss of appetite, so he lost considerable weight, and a really bad cough.
One evening, Amphay Lo said, "I got so scared he wasn't going to make it," so she finally followed LoVan's advice not to be scared of an $800 ambulance cost and get immediate care. The church has helped pay part of that bill, and LoVan has taken food and medicine to about 40 homes of people who attend Morningside Lutheran, including the Los and Keomongkhounes.
Both families praised church officials for the needed boost. All four said a pandemic corner won't be turned until a vaccine is widely available. On Thursday, Iowa Department of Public Health Acting Director Kelly Garcia said everyone in Iowa who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by mid-2021.
During the worst weeks after testing positive for the virus, Vanh Keomongkhoune, 62, said, "I was afraid of dying, especially for her, she could not breathe...This virus is really dangerous. I am very blessed and lucky to survive."
A renowned cook, Vanh Keomongkhounes, 71, doesn't feel comfortable returning to church, even though she's felt great support from there.
"Pastor Tom loves us and cares. He helped us with things we needed, especially when we were sick," she said.
Christmas and the Advent season is a hugely important period for Christian churches. At the most recent Sunday 9:30 a.m. service, Pastor Noah Ruppert said, "We are waiting for hope to come."
As for his Advent sermons, LoVan said his message is for church members to pray for each other, plus this: "God is bigger than these little bugs (virus). God will watch over us."
He also goes beyond the religious message, adding in public health reminders, to be vigilant in wearing masks and being careful in public spaces.
"I say it all the time," LoVan said.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the number of funerals conducted by LoVan.