Pastor who recovered from COVID-19 greeted with drive-thru parade

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 3, 2020

By Liz Moomey

SALISBURY — A line of cars wrapped around the parking lot of Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church Saturday morning to welcome back Pastor Dawn Rister, who recovered from COVID-19 last month.

Rister was diagnosed with the virus on March 24 when she was rushed to the hospital. Five days later, the 49-year-old pastor was put on a ventilator. On April 9  — Maundy Thursday — she was taken off a ventilator and left intensive care.

Rister has been at her South Carolina home since April 15, self-quarantining and getting her strength back.

More than 80 cars with people waving posters, carrying balloons and giving Rister cards and treats drove by the church for more than an hour. One poster stated “Even viruses find you irresistible.”

There were so many well-wishers that, at one point, the cars spilled out onto Sherrills Ford Road. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so loved,” Rister said. “I had so many people come by. There were tears, laughter and just lots of smiles. It was good. It looked like a church family was supposed to look like.”

Brandon Kepley and Susan Sides, members of the Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church executive committee, organized the parade for Rister. Church members and other visitors to showed her an “outpouring of love and good wishes of wanting her to get back into church where she belongs,” Sides said.

Kepley said from the first car in the parade to the end Rister was “overjoyed.”

“She had that wide smile,” Kepley said. “That didn’t stop. That’s all you needed to see.”

It’s thought that Rister and others may have contracted the virus when the church’s executive committee met March 16 to discuss a plan for the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the six members, only Kepley and Sides did not contract the virus. Rister, Harold Snider, Ken Jones and another member of the congregation did. Rister was reunited with them Saturday. 

“It was so good to see them all doing well and see them all in person,” Rister said. “You never want to see your people suffer.”

Rister said she got choked up seeing the other members who were sick and a nurse couple who are on the front line of pandemic. She said every car was special.

“The whole day was the biggest blessing,” Rister said.

Kepley said there was a void with Rister’s absence. When he saw her drive up Saturday morning, Kepley said he was excited to have her back. He said she looked great and sounded close to normal.

Sides said the parade was a day of excitement and joy, one that she will never forget.

“For the rest of her life, she will know her faith family loves her,” Sides said. “It was just incredible.”

Rister admitted she was nervous about standing up for a long period, but every day her breathing gets better and she gains more strength, though she still has a ways to go.

“To think, three weeks ago, I couldn’t breath on my own,” Rister said.