For so many Americans, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of their lifetimes. From an unprecedented pandemic, to the fight for racial justice, there are scars that still show as we prepare to usher in the new year. But amid the struggle, there have been signs of hope for a better future.
The working man
Tens of millions of Americans have felt the devastating blows the year has brought with it, particularly Chad Whitenmeyer.
“Some of [the conversations we had this year] were very scary,” he said. “We had the ‘what are we going to do for money?’”
Whitenmeyer, 39, worked for a factory where he relied on the 12-hour days to feed his family of six. But when COVID-19 hit, he was one of the first people he knew to contract the virus.
“When I took a breath, it felt like I wasn’t taking a full breath,” he said inside of his mobile home in Loveland, Colorado. “I thought I was in the process of dying.”
Chad first lost some motor function as he stayed quarantined at home. Then, he lost his job and along with it, his family’s insurance.
“You go down this black hole that you can’t get out of,” he said.
After four months of short-term disability, Whitenmeyer applied for unemployment, but because he contracted COVID-19 so early in the pandemic, he was not able to get a test, meaning he had no proof he was actually diagnosed.
It forced his wife to find temporary employment while Chad, a man who had prided himself on being the family’s breadwinner for two decades, to stay at home and provide for their kids in a different way.
“It’s one of the worst feelings I’ve had about myself in my entire life,” he said. “It feels as though you can’t provide any worth to anyone around you.”
The transplant patient
On June 26, 52-year-old Carl Werden was like so many other Americans: trying to stay healthy, while leading a modest life as a contractor.
But on June 27, everything changed when Werden, a man with no underlying conditions, contracted the virus when he went to visit his daughter in Massachusetts.
In only a matter of days, Werden’s condition deteriorated and he was sent to the hospital, a place he would remain for the next six months.
“I think a lot of people think if they get sick with COVID, they’ll just be in the hospital for a few days and then they can go home, but that’s not how it works,” he said from his hospital bed over a Zoom call.
For four months, Werden slipped in and out of consciousness as he battled the virus, but in October, his lungs had finally given up. Doctors said if he did not get a double lung transplant, it would only be a matter of days until he died.
“Because of the COVID, there was a lot of fibrosis in my lungs and it just kept getting worse,” said Werden. “They cut me open, then they cut my rib cage in half.”
Much like COVID-19, Werden does not know where those donated lungs came from. But, no longer paralyzed by fear, he is thankful to still be here.
“I want people to realize there are people who are perfectly healthy, like I was, that go from being perfectly healthy to having a double lung transplant,” he said.
In San Diego, while still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, Pastor Miles McPherson, 60, was dealing with the fallout of a different virus that had taken control of the country in May.
“The symbolism of how [Derek Chauvin] killed George Floyd, how I received it was, you are nothing, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said McPherson.
After watching the 8 minute and 43 second video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, McPherson saw the country come to grips with an outspoken racial reckoning that took hold of his community, as it did so many others across the country.
“This was protracted, lengthened out murder,” he said. “It was as cold-hearted as I’ve seen.”
McPherson, a Black man, grew up watching his father serve as a police officer, a path his son is now following as well.
“There are a lot more people saying we have to do something, what that is, a lot of people don’t know, but that’s something,” he said. “And that’s the beginning of change.”
McPherson is working to be a part of that change through a program called The Third Option Similarity Training. He developed it after publishing his book "The Third Option," recognizing the need for a racial reconciliation training program based on honor.
The program is being used by schools, churches, and businesses, teaching people how to honor the similarities between us and use those similarities to establish connection and mutual understanding. The training provides actionable steps and creates space for conversations aimed at creating real change.
As we come to the final chapter of 2020, it is easy to look at the negatives, but that’s not where the sights of Whitenmeyer, Werden, and McPherson lie. They are focused on a brighter future.
As a stay-at-home dad, Whitenmeyer has invested in a camera where he shoots and edits videos of the daily adventures he has with his kids and posts them on YouTube.
“Even though this year, for my body, physically speaking, has been the worst year of my life, I’ve gotten to do what I’ve wanted to do, which is to be a dad,” he said.
Carl Werden, while still in the hospital, has not only regained the function of his new lungs, but has started walking as he progresses through rehab.
“I’m thankful every day,” he said.
Pastor Miles McPherson, along with many of his congregants, feel that in the face of extreme racial tension, our country is well on its way to becoming more unified.
“I am always hopeful there’s going to be a victory in the end, not only for Black people, but us as a people, because we’re all one race,” he said.
In a year that has left us all paralyzed in so many different ways, there are still reasons to keep moving forward, to put one foot in front of the other and work towards a better tomorrow.