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A Hispanic church in Tennessee is grieving the loss of its charismatic founder

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An Hispanic church on the edge of Nashville, Tenn., is grieving the loss of its charismatic founder. He died of COVID last month at the age of 57. He's part of an avoidable surge of COVID deaths across the South, where vaccinations lag behind the rest of the country. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN has this remembrance.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Ministry runs in the family of German Castro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

FARMER: A new generation of Castros led his funeral, held virtually from the El Shaddai Christian Church because of the recent outbreak that sickened Pastor German. At the bilingual service, Julian Castro says he recalls when he was little seeing his uncle strumming a guitar and singing praise songs.

JULIAN CASTRO: (Through interpreter) I would say, I want to be like him.

FARMER: In Colombia, he worked for an international export company and led worship on the side. Then his family was robbed and briefly held hostage in their own home. So they fled the violence in Colombia. When they relocated to Tennessee, they attended a local church and helped translate the services since there weren't many Spanish-speaking congregations in town. A few years later, that grew into the El Shaddai Church. German left international trade and went to a seminary to become a full-time preacher.

MARGARITA CASTRO: (Through interpreter) He worked like a little ant.

FARMER: His wife of 30 years, Margarita, says he was tireless but tender. Children were drawn to him. Some called him Amen as a nickname. Church member Rachel Vasquez compared him to the prophets at the Bible.

RACHEL VASQUEZ: (Through interpreter) God gave us a leader modeled after Moses.

FARMER: The church has struggled to bounce back from a historic flood a decade ago. At the time, German even had to be rescued from the swollen creek that inundated their building. After years raising money for repairs, the work is almost complete. Because German didn't live to see the church rebuilt, Margarita sees another connection to Moses, who led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years.

M CASTRO: He didn't get to go to the Promised Land.

FARMER: When German fell ill with 20 of his congregants, he was hospitalized within days. Prayers poured in from around the world.

M CASTRO: He believed he was going to get out of it because we have been through so much. And God would always bring us out in victory. So we just thought this was just one more time.

FARMER: At his funeral, Margarita consoled the congregation with words from the Old Testament her husband said many times before, from the same pulpit. God gives. God takes. But blessed be the name of the Lord.

For NPR news, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.