The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
13th in a series on long marriages
Frustrated, Pastor Robert Hall walked into the hospital. He’d come to visit a dying church member but hadn’t been able to get the day off from his landscaping job. When he finally made it to the hospital, the man’s room was empty: He had already died.
“Something snapped in me,” Hall recalls. He told God, “I’m not doing what You’ve called me to do well. This is ridiculous.”
The pastor’s bivocational life was taking an enormous toll. Hall was working 50 hours a week, pastoring a small church, and raising three kids with his wife, Juanita. He had never been to seminary. He’d helped another man plant the church, but after a year, that pastor left. With around 40 people and a desire to do God’s will, Robert became the church’s pastor in 1987, working to support himself and his family.
But he was doing too much, and his anger threatened to blow up his marriage: Pride prevented his asking for help or receiving Juanita’s correction.
One night Robert reprimanded his son for speaking disrespectfully to his mother, and the boy responded, “Why not? You do.” Another time, the couple had a heated argument in a room at the church building. A parishioner heard raised voices and opened the door. Robert told him to get out, and the couple continued arguing. By then, Robert says, he felt for the first time like Juanita was not on his side.
“Until the man involved is willing to admit, ‘I’m wrong—I’m in sin—this is me that’s the problem’ ... it’s very difficult to find healing,” he says.
In 1993, a “self-confrontation” class from the Biblical Counseling Foundation opened Robert’s eyes: At one point, he started crying and said, “I’m an angry man. I am a terribly angry man.” He began memorizing Scripture to address his anger and asking forgiveness for the times he blew up at others.
Meanwhile, Juanita was rethinking what it meant to be Robert’s helper. She considered why she corrected her children: She loved them and didn’t want any to “grow up to be a bratty little kid that no one likes.” She realized she was not loving her husband well if she did not honestly correct his sin. She began graciously confronting him, beginning with, “Honey, you know that I love you. …”
Robert began pausing to pray and disconnect from work before he came home each evening. Once, he forgot and started complaining when he entered the house. Juanita asked if he’d prayed, and he said no and walked back outside. After praying, he came in and she greeted him as if he’d just arrived. “The kids are looking at us like we’re crazy,” he recalls. “But it worked.” He says his wife’s support and teamwork made a difference.
In 1995 the elders of his church, Calvary Rio Rancho, told Robert to choose between landscaping and pastoring. So Robert sold his part of the business, and in five years the church grew from 140 to 900 people. Today Robert, 73, serves as pastor emeritus. He leads the church’s Trail Life USA and American Heritage Girls programs and its school, Rio Rancho Elementary. He and Juanita, 70, are celebrating 50 years of marriage.
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Standing in front of a wall-sized mirror, Taylor Shelnutt looks every part the cake-topper bride. Her blonde locks fall past her shoulders in waves over a lacy white gown. But even though at her dress fitting she appears ready for her mid-April wedding day, she doesn’t feel it.
“Really just it’s heartbreaking that we would be at this point, three-and-a-half weeks out from our wedding, and not be hopeful for it, and not be filled with joy or excitement,” Shelnutt said. “We’re excited to get married, but at this point, kind of the, the happiness from the season is stolen.”
Shelnutt and her fiancé, Cole Mund, had planned their Dallas wedding for Easter weekend. The symbolism was intentional.
“I wanted it to be a representation of the gospel. That’s what marriage is, and I really wanted that proclaimed loud and clear right before Easter,” Shelnutt said.
But as their wedding date drew nearer, the alarm bells of a pandemic began to drown out the sound of wedding bells. Out-of-town relatives—most of Shelnutt’s family—expressed concerns about traveling during the COVID-19 outbreak. Her elderly grandparents broke the news that they wouldn’t be able to attend.
Then, the federal government began discouraging gatherings of people—first 500, then 50, then anything over 10. Every day brings new information at breakneck speed. Cole said just a few days ago, postponing their wedding wasn’t even on their radar.
“We didn’t even think in this short span of three, four days that that would even be a possibility that this wedding couldn’t happen,” Mund said.
Of course, weddings are interactive by their very nature. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, dancing, and finger-foods make them a strong vector for contagious disease. Plenty of Shelnutt and Mund’s friends insist they’ll attend, no matter what. But Taylor and Cole don’t want to gamble with their guests’ health.
“My sister in law is pregnant, and my cousins have tiny babies. My grandmas are older, and Cole has a lot of older people in his family,” Shelnutt said. “It’s a lot of responsibility to be making this decision on behalf of 200 people who could be there. It’s a lot of pressure.”
The couple considered alternatives: keeping the April 11 date and decreasing the number of guests; elopement before a justice of the peace; or postponement until summer or beyond. But even those ideas rub Shelnutt and Mund the wrong way.
“It’s hard for me thinking through the backup options because you lose the specialness. Even if we were to do a small ceremony now and have the actual big wedding later, I would be kind of faking it at that point,” Shelnutt said.
If they cancel, they’ll face a long to-do list: Notify guests, negotiate with vendors for refunds, cancel hotel blocks, and so on. Wedding industry professionals feel the effects of these cancellations already. Many vendors, like florists and caterers, already operate on razor-thin margins. Others, like photographers and makeup artists, may not be paid until a wedding is rescheduled, and that could be months from now.
Caroline Fair is a high-end wedding planner in Dallas. She has been talking to colleagues and vendors, sharing best practices for moving forward in this largely unprecedented era within the industry. Overall, she and her regular vendors have agreed not to charge postponement fees, though contractually they could. And they’re encouraging clients to reschedule rather than cancel outright.
Ultimately, this is a force majeure, and how vendors conduct themselves now may reap dividends in the future. After all, Fair said, you don’t want a scorned bride taking to social media with her frustrations.
“There was another point of view that you need to charge those fees because of the additional time and effort that’s going to go into postponement because you’re essentially planning the event over again,” Fair said. “But it’s your business reputation. My personal thoughts on that are that we should show people compassion and grace in this uncertain time.”
For now, Shelnutt and Mund are loosening their grip on April 11. They secured their marriage license in the event Dallas courts close. The unknown is hard, but they’re hanging on to hope.
“In all the uncertainty and all the unknowns, we have to keep telling ourselves the things we do know,” Shelnutt said. “We know that the Lord is our guide. We know He is sovereign. We know He’s in control, and we know He’s not surprised by this.”
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12th in a series on long marriages
Mike and Pat Meierhenry both grew up on farms. They met in college at a fraternity dance, where Pat asked her date why Mike was dancing with one hand in his pocket. Her date explained that Mike had lost the use of his left arm from polio—but he still went home to farm on the weekends. Pat wondered how he managed farm work with only one arm. Later, Pat and Mike double-dated, and in September 1960 they married, “between haying and corn-picking.”
The newlyweds moved to Mike’s family farm 2 1/2 hours north of Lincoln, Neb. “Farming isn’t a business,” says Pat. “It’s something you either have to love doing or get out.” They loved it. The couple’s early married life was not always smooth, but they managed to compromise and work together. With four children and several full- or part-time farm hands to help Mike, their life together was good.
The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, ‘Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.’
Then around 1980, the farm crisis hit Nebraska. Land values had steadily increased, and farmers across the country were taking massive loans, using their land as collateral. Farmers typically take out loans to cover the expenses of planting crops, then repay the loan after harvest. But during that crisis, banks encouraged farmers to take larger loans for more land, newer equipment, and additional livestock.
Meanwhile, interest rates rose. Pat said they initially paid about 5 percent interest, and by 1985 they were paying 15 percent or more. “No one can survive on borrowed money with that kind of interest,” said Pat. The financial pressure on the farmers became so severe that several of their neighbors went on to other jobs. The Meierhenrys had farm hands to pay and one child in college. The prospect of losing the farm—their lifestyle and their family heritage—put pressure on the couple’s marriage.
Mike and Pat both became depressed, and Mike was too stressed to sleep. Pat said her husband “became a person that I really didn’t recognize.” She worked as a nurse, and a divorced co-worker made singleness sound attractive to her. As Pat and Mike dealt with private stress, in public they pretended everything was fine, attending their kids’ sports games and working together on projects. But Mike at one point confessed to one of their sons, “I don’t even know if I’m going to stay married.”
Finally, a turning point came in 1985 when Pat insisted Mike see a local pastor for counseling. After that meeting, Mike came home and felt enough relief to sleep through the night. Pat noticed and decided to meet with the counselor too. The counselor encouraged them to confess their sins and forgive each other, and told them, “Before we save this farm, we have to save this family.”
After three counseling sessions and that simple advice, the couple’s marriage improved. Although they still fought sometimes, they worked to reconcile, prioritizing their relationship. Meanwhile, the situation with the farm gradually improved. Mike found and applied for a government loan program that guaranteed the bank some interest if it cooperated. He joined a farm business association and learned many farmers were having financial problems like his. After a while, he began counseling some of them.
The Meierhenrys worked to get out of debt and finally paid off their last loan 10 years ago. They invited their former neighbors to a small party to celebrate.
When farming with post-polio syndrome became too much for Mike, the couple moved near Lincoln, where they ran a bed-and-breakfast and worked side jobs. Mike, 89, now spends most of his time at their townhouse, reading newspapers, watching TV sports and news, and playing chess. Pat, 81, cares for Mike and keeps busy with friend dates and church activities.
The Meierhenrys nearly lost both their farm and their marriage, but today, they’ve been married 59 years. And the farm? They rent it out to tenants—and still try to visit a couple of times a year.