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Rebuilding With Gratitude And Hope After A Year of Loss

Mary France Comer.jpg
Courtesy of Mary Frances Comer
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Courtesy of Mary Frances Comer
It's been almost a year since Rev. Mary Frances Comer was first diagnosed with COVID-19. She recently decided to step away from ministry for the time being to focus on her health. Here she is pictured in 2018 during an interfaith rally for asylum seekers in Salisbury.

Sitting in her Charlotte apartment surrounded by books and her two cats recently, Rev. Mary Frances Comer reflected. Finding her own path to religion wasn’t easy. The 56-year-old grew up in Rock Hill and describes South Carolina as the "buckle" of the Bible Belt.

"Growing up gay in the South, that was something that was not accepted," she said. "And not only not accepted in other places, but absolutely condemned."

Comer was called to the church, but always felt like she had to hide this important piece of her identity from her fundamentalist family and upbringing.

"To feel called to ministry, to have a relationship with what you believe to be the holy and then simultaneously to be called an abomination was, you know, quite the cognitive dissonance," she said.

She even tried to confide in one of her siblings when she was 17 years old.

"The message was, 'We're just not even going to talk about that and don't tell our parents, don't tell your aunts and uncles, because that would just kill them,'" Comer said. "Twelve years following that, till about age 29, I just kept a lid on that. Or to use the more common terminology, I lived in the closet."

Years later, a friend introduced her to the Unitarian Universalist Church, where she immediately felt at home. She eventually began a path to ministry. And up until recently, she was the lead minister at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte and Salisbury.

"What the UU Church provided for me was a place to be myself, a place to be who I was and not have to leave any part of myself at the door," she said. "And a public place, a gathering where I could really be who I was for the first time in my life."

But this year, she made the difficult decision to step away from what was not just a dream job, but a true calling. That’s because even though it’s been almost a year since her initial COVID-19 diagnosis, she still has some symptoms that won’t go away.

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Mary Frances Comer
As her health declined, Comer had to sit instead of stand when she preached.

"When people say, 'Well, when will you be better?' there's no way to know when or if," Comer said. "I'm very hopeful that I will improve, but right now I'm short of breath going from one room to another. Daily headache, daily nausea — just quite a laundry list of symptoms."

Simple tasks like moving a chair or walking from room to room are now exhausting. Comer pointed to a small machine — it’s a portable oxygen concentrator. It was gifted to her by one of her congregants and it costs about $2,300. She pointed to a much larger machine that provides continuous oxygen flow while she sleeps.

It took awhile for her to get used to its loud hum, especially because of what it reminded her of. During her pastoral training, she was a hospital chaplain intern.

"This is the sound of the machines that were in the room of people who were what we called 'imminent death;' people who were vented and not going to make it," she said.

Before she realized she would need to leave her job, Comer tried to take a leave of absence from work. Maybe if she got enough rest and focused solely on recovery, she thought, she’d get better.

But a monthlong leave turned into two, then three months ... and she realized she couldn’t go back. Not only was she having trouble breathing, she experienced extreme exhaustion and problems with her heart.

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Mary Frances Comer
Comer's pets are always by her side especially as she tried to heal from COVID-19.

So in early July, she recorded her last sermon. It was a penned love letter to her congregation and to the position she had worked hard to achieve.

"It was very difficult," she said. "I'm not quite sure it's sunk all the way in yet — that's really the end of that particular ministry."

Even before she contracted COVID-19, the start of her 2020 was a rough one. She lived in a different apartment, previously. There was a fire which turned into a flood when sprinklers went off and the fire department couldn’t shut them off right away.

"It was a year of loss — the apartment and eventually the relationship — and then the job because of the COVID. And then the loss of health because of the COVID," Comer said.

She lost nearly everything. Then a five-year-relationship with her partner ended. There’s the loss of the job she loved so much, and the loss of health. And with that loss comes grief. And it also comes with resilience — but in a different way than she’s used to.

"I think for me, it looks like getting up, moving around, staying in communication with people. Hope. Looking to the future," she said.

And part of that future is an unexpected turn for Comer. She is experiencing firsthand the economic hardships of COVID-19. Because she is now on disability, she can no longer afford the $1,000 monthly rent for her apartment. But, she has options. One is to return home to Rock Hill.

Decades ago, she purchased a house there. She describes it as a little, square home from the 1950s that reminds her of one of the pieces from the board game Monopoly. It needs work before she can move in. It has mold issues. It sounds pretty overwhelming — but not when you have a congregation that stands by you even as you depart.

"I have mixed emotions about going back to Rock Hill, but I feel like the compassion I'm seeing from people who want to help with the house and get it back and in livable shape — that makes me excited," she said. "I don't know where the expression originated, 'this is the house that love built,' but I feel like this is the house that love is rebuilding."

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Courtesy of Mary Frances Comer
Rev. Mary Frances Comer said goodbye to her congregation at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in early July.

Members of her congregation created a GoFundMe page to help with her home repairs and so far nearly $26,000 have been raised.

It’s giving her hope. Maybe one day, she says, she’ll even be able to return to ministry — and do so, where she grew up.

What better place for her to provide that space than where she struggled to feel accepted? The place where she was unable to be her true, authentic self and felt isolated and alone might just turn out to be the perfect grounds to create a new, physical home — and also to rebuild a spiritual one.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.