After losing his beloved pastor to Covid-19, Bill Courtney grieves and copes with uncertainty.
Posted in , Apr 10, 2020
The call came late on a Monday evening from a fellow member of Bill Courtney's church: “Bill, I just talked to Kathe. Tim died.”
Tim Russell, an assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, had been hospitalized with Covid-19. Bill Courtney, a member of Second Presbyterian and a close friend of Russell’s, had been guardedly optimistic his friend would survive. Now Russell was gone and Courtney never got to say goodbye. The hospital allowed no visitors, not even Russell’s wife, Kathe.
“He had to suffer and die alone,” Courtney said. “It’s horrific…I am so sad and shaken.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has spared no part of the world. Americans are struggling to cope with shock, grief and severe economic disruption.
Bill Courtney, owner of a Memphis lumber mill, has experienced the full spectrum of the virus’s effects. Courtney has lost two friends to Covid-19 and his mill, which employs 110 people and ships American hardwoods to customers around the world, has struggled to remain in operation.
Courtney and his wife, Lisa, live in lockdown with their college-age son and Lisa’s parents, who are in their 70s. Courtney goes to the mill each day but he has sent most of his office workers home. He supervises a skeleton factory crew with the help of his operations manager, Doug Johnson. He remains in touch with his other three adult children but he can’t bring them home.
How does he cope with what he described as near-crushing fear and uncertainty? Especially when Tim Russell, the person Courtney relied on most to fortify his faith, is gone?
Courtney said Russell’s teaching continues to guide him. “Tim said to us, ‘No matter what, you must believe in and trust in the divine providence of God,’” Courtney said. “If you will, no matter what comes to you, just trust and have faith in divine providence, you will find a way to sleep at night and wake up the next morning.”
What did Russell mean by divine providence? “This is not chance or bad luck,” Courtney said. “This is part of something and we may never understand it. I just have to trust there’s a plan here and I have to continue to do everything I can to work with what’s happening.”
I have been in touch with Courtney on and off for several years. In 2014, I edited a Guideposts story he wrote about how serving as a volunteer football coach at an inner-city Memphis high school helped him summon the courage to forgive his father, who walked out on Courtney’s family when Courtney was four years old.
More recently, I’ve been working with Courtney on another Guideposts story, this one about how he coped when an international trade dispute nearly wiped out Classic American Hardwoods, Courtney’s lumber mill. In 2018, China imposed retaliatory tariffs on American agricultural products, instantly lopping off a third of the mill’s business. Courtney slashed his own salary, reduced his workforce by 60 employees and scrambled to find new customers.
The Coronavirus hit in the middle of our work on that story. Still struggling to regain its financial footing, Classic American Hardwoods now faced plummeting construction demand and paralyzed international supply chains. Then Tim Russell died.
Courtney and I knew the subject of his story had changed. While we work on a new version, I wanted to pass along to Guideposts readers some of the hard-won wisdom Courtney has gained during the past two challenging years. Courtney is a man of deep faith with a gift for expressing himself in plain language. If there is anyone who can help everyday people remain grounded, clear-headed and faithful during a crisis, it is Bill Courtney.
Characteristically, Courtney gives most of the credit for his spiritual strength to other people. He said he models his leadership style on Jesus, seeking to serve his employees by empowering them to do good work. The last time we talked, he apologized for being a little late picking up the phone. One of his employees had gotten an upset stomach on the factory floor and Courtney volunteered to clean up the mess. “I smell like I’ve been in a Clorox plant,” he said.
He adopted a similar attitude toward his high school football players, mentoring them on and off the field and giving them credit for the team’s victories and their own triumphs at home.
Courtney said he has no particular talent for faith. He fuels himself spiritually with prayer, Scripture study and by emulating Russell’s practice of seeking God’s presence in everyday life.
“One thing (Russell) said a lot when he taught Sunday school class, when someone said something about how God impacted their life, Tim would say in his booming James Earl Jones voice, ‘That’s the Jesus I know,’” Courtney said. “I have a daily walk with Christ. I study Scripture…I make sure I’m right with the Lord every morning and every night. And I have 100 percent steadfast, unadulterated faith in the divine providence of God.”
Courtney said he does not believe God causes or inflicts suffering. Rather, he said he tries to remember that his own perspective is limited and so he does not always see the larger divine pattern or intention in particular moments of time.
“I ask every night for God to continue to grant me two things: his presence, so I know I’m not alone in this. And his strength,” Courtney said. “Success has a very odd way of inflating your belief in your own abilities and control. Anyone can be a champ when you’re on top of the world. Character is revealed by how you handle suffering and tough times…When you lie in bed staring at the ceiling at 3:00 a.m. wondering what you’re going to do, you realize you’ve never been in control. God is, so you might as well give it to him.”
Courtney said he will continue working to stay in business and retain his employees, even if it means paying them to stay home. The mill has been deemed an essential business by the government and the skeleton crew works in full protective gear and sanitizes the factory at the end of each day.
Courtney won’t be able to attend Tim Russell’s funeral because Memphis’ stay-at-home order bans large gatherings. He said he will grieve alone with God and with his family.
“Two years of tariffs. This virus. Economic problems. Everything we’ve done to stay in business and my head is pounding,” Courtney said. “But at the end of the day, I will submit to the divine providence of God…Do the best you can, and when you release that control, the fear and anger dissipates and you wake up with a smile on your face and you know God has got you.”