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ONE YEAR LATER: Starrville Methodist Church honors late pastor who died in fatal shooting last year
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Members of Starrville Methodist Church cried and shared hugs as they united at the same location their pastor was shot and killed last year.

After a Sunday memorial service honoring late Pastor Mark Allen McWilliams, members of the church broke ground for a tree that will be planted in his honor.

On Jan. 3, 2021, McWilliams was preparing for church service that Sunday morning when he was fatally shot by his own gun, which had been wrested away from him by a suspect who hid from police inside the church in Winona overnight.

Just over a year later, the church, which has remained open, gathered for the anniversary of the “unimaginable tragedy.”

Linda Parrott, member of the church for shortly over a year, received many heartfelt hugs at the service. She said she was on her way to church the day McWilliams was shot and killed. After hearing what happened and seeing police vehicles outside, she said she was in disbelief and shock.

“I went home and... just crying,” Parrott said. She reached out to her friend and the pastor’s wife, Rosemary McWilliams, who she said couldn’t think to do anything.

“[Rosemary] said she could not come back to this church because of what had happened. ... She is having a very, very difficult time with this,” Parrott said.

The late pastor was first buried at the Winona Cemetery, but has since been moved to Frankston to be closer for his wife to visit.

“I remember the last words he said behind the pulpit were, ‘Maybe I may not even be here next Sunday.’ I don’t know if he had a premonition or what. He always encouraged us to pray,” Parrott said.

She said what happened was a tragedy but thinking of where he is now in heaven brings positivity. However, she said she has taken her pastor’s death really hard.

“My husband [Billy] and I both, we just loved him and love Rosemary,” Parrott said with tears in her eyes. “There’s not any special words that I can give you that would truly describe what a man of God that he was.”

A year later, the church now has new leadership. On the first Sunday of March last year, Paul Bolding stepped in to fill the late pastor’s role after visiting a few times to help with music and preaching. He said the number of people who attend the church has not been affected because of what happened, but COVID-19 has. There are currently about 40 members who attend.

“Rosemary walked in here two days after watching her husband died and she said this,” Bolding said, as he read a statement Rosemary said last year at the funeral service.

“You have said, ‘I will take what the enemy has meant for evil into good,’ and I hope you turn it into good for this church, for the community, for churches across the country, for Christianity, for the next generation. Lord, you are so good,” were the words Rosemary McWilliams said at her husband’s funeral service.

At Sunday’s memorial service, a member of the church stood at the front door to welcome those who entered. Since the tragedy that happened on the church’s grounds, Bolding said the members of the congregation are very close and tight knit, possibly because of what happened, he said.

“At the moment that Mark was standing there and the bullets began to pierce his skin, God is saying that he is being made into the image of God quicker,” said Bolding to the congregation in his sermon.

“Immediately, when his heart stopped, he was with the Lord. Unimaginable. Unimaginable tragedy. But God is so thorough, he made a way in every detail. Mark is praising God with all his heart, free from any encumbrance whatsoever. He’s now getting a glimpse of what eternity is going to be like,” he said.

Bolding said there was a forgiveness service last year, where every person at the church got to walk through forgiveness if they chose to. He said they keep forgiving.

“We believe the light of Christ overcomes the darkness. These were very dark days. Last year on the third was a very dark day, but all the people that were there that day have already proved that God’s light overcomes the darkness, and that can happen everywhere if you just get in with Jesus in the light and get out of the darkness,” Bolding said.

The tree that will be planted in honor of McWilliams is being donated by Breedlove Nursery and is an October Glory Maple that turns orange and bright red in the fall. The tree will grow 40 to 50 feet, said Bolding, and will be proof of new life, which he called God’s plan. After breaking ground where the tree will be planted, the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” and said a prayer.

Stay home or work sick? Omicron poses a conundrum
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As the raging omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the nation, millions of those whose jobs don’t provide paid sick days are having to choose between their health and their paycheck.

While many companies instituted more robust sick leave policies at the beginning of the pandemic, some of those have since been scaled back with the rollout of the vaccines, even though omicron has managed to evade the shots. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage is adding to the pressure of workers having to decide whether to show up to their job sick if they can’t afford to stay home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “As staffing gets depleted because people are out sick, that means that those that are on the job have more to do and are even more reluctant to call in sick when they in turn get sick.”

Low-income hourly workers are especially vulnerable. Nearly 80% of all private sector workers get at least one paid sick day, according to a national compensation survey of employee benefits conducted in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers whose wages are at the bottom 10% get paid sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%.

A survey this past fall of roughly 6,600 hourly low-wage workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of those workers who reported being sick in the last month said they went to work anyway. That’s lower than the 85% who showed up to work sick before the pandemic, but much higher than it should be in the middle of a public health crisis. Schneider says it could get worse because of omicron and the labor shortage.

What’s more, Schneider noted that the share of workers with paid sick leave before the pandemic barely budged during the pandemic — 50% versus 51% respectively. He further noted many of the working poor surveyed don’t even have $400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more financially strapped with the expiration of the child tax credit, which had put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets every month.

The Associated Press interviewed one worker who started a new job with the state of New Mexico last month and started experiencing COVID-like symptoms earlier in the week. The worker, who asked not to be named because it might jeopardize their employment, took a day off to get tested and two more days to wait for the results.

A supervisor called and told the worker they would qualify for paid sick days only if the COVID test turns out to be positive. If the test is negative, the worker will have to take the days without pay, since they haven’t accrued enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my co-workers,” said the worker, who is still awaiting the results and estimates it will cost $160 per day of work missed if they test negative. “Now I wish I just would’ve gone to work and not said anything.”

A Trader Joe’s worker in California, who also asked not to be named because they didn’t want to risk their job, said the company lets workers accrue paid time off that they can use for vacations or sick days. But once that time is used up, employees often feel like they can’t afford to take unpaid days.

“I think many people now come to work sick or with what they call ‘allergies’ because they feel they have no other choice,” the worker said.

Trader Joe’s offered hazard pay until last spring, and even paid time off if workers had COVID-related symptoms. But the worker said those benefits have ended. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are similarly curtailing sick time that they offered earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s biggest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated salaried workers in an attempt to compel more of them to get the jab as COVID-19 cases rise again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s health care plan will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks paid emergency leave if they become infected — a policy that was put into place last year when vaccines were unavailable.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is slashing pandemic-related paid leave in half — from two weeks to one — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced isolation requirements for people who don’t have symptoms after they test positive.

Workers have received some relief from a growing number of states. In the last decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or ballot measures requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the federal front, however, the movement has stalled. Congress passed a law in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave for employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on Dec. 31 of that same year. Congress later extended tax credits for employers who voluntarily provide paid sick leave, but the extension lapsed at the end of September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In November, the U.S. House passed a version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan that would require employers to provide 20 days of paid leave for employees who are sick or caring for a family member. But the fate of that bill is uncertain in the Senate.

“We can’t do a patchwork sort of thing. It has to be holistic. It has to be meaningful,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director at Family Values @ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions helping to advocate for such policies as paid sick days.

The U.S. is one of only 11 countries worldwide without any federal mandate for paid sick leave, according to a 2020 study by the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the flipside are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can’t afford to pay workers when they are out sick. But Crawley is trying to help in other ways. She recently drove one cleaner who didn’t have a car to a nearby testing site. She later bought the cleaner some medicine, orange juice and oranges.

“If they are out, I try to give them money but at the same time my company has got to survive,” Crawley said. “If the company goes under, no one has work.”

Even when paid sick leave is available, workers aren’t always made aware of it.

Ingrid Vilorio, who works at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, California, started feeling sick last March and soon tested positive for COVID. Vilorio alerted a supervisor, who didn’t tell her she was eligible for paid sick leave — as well as supplemental COVID leave — under California law.

Vilorio said her doctor told her to take 15 days off, but she decided to take just 10 because she had bills to pay. Months later, a co-worker told Vilorio she was owed sick pay for the time she was off. Working through Fight for $15, a group that works to unionize fast food workers, Vilorio and her colleagues reported the restaurant to the county health department. Shortly after that, she was given back pay.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that problems persist. Workers are still getting sick, she said, and are often afraid to speak up.

“Without our health, we can’t work,” she said. “We’re told that we’re front line workers, but we’re not treated like it.”

Prospects dim as US, Russia prepare to meet over Ukraine
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WASHINGTON — With the fate of Ukraine and potentially broader post-Cold War European stability at stake, the United States and Russia are holding critical strategic talks that could shape the future of not only their relationship but the relationship between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Prospects are bleak.

Though the immediacy of the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine will top the agenda in a series of high-level meetings that get underway on Monday, there is a litany of festering but largely unrelated disputes, ranging from arms control to cybercrime and diplomatic issues, for Washington and Moscow to overcome if tensions are to ease. And the recent deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan may cast a shadow over the entire exercise.

With much at risk and both warning of dire consequences of failure, the two sides have been positioning themselves for what will be a nearly unprecedented flurry of activity in Europe this week. Yet the wide divergence in their opening positions bodes ill for any type of speedy resolution, and levels of distrust appear higher than at any point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said bluntly Sunday that he doesn’t expect any breakthroughs in the coming week. Instead, he said a more likely positive outcome would be an agreement to de-escalate tensions in the short term and return to talks at an appropriate time in the future. But the U.S. will have to see a de-escalation for there to be actual progress.

“It’s very hard to see that happening when there’s an ongoing escalation when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine with 100,000 troops near its borders, the possibility of doubling that on very short order,” Blinken said on ABC’s “This Week.”

U.S. officials on Saturday unveiled some details of the administration’s stance, which seem to fall well short of Russian demands. The officials said the U.S. is open to discussions on curtailing possible future deployments of offensive missiles in Ukraine and putting limits on American and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe if Russia is willing to back off on Ukraine.

But they also said Russia will be hit hard with economic sanctions should it intervene in Ukraine. In addition to direct sanctions on Russian entities, those penalties could include significant restrictions on products exported from the U.S. to Russia and potentially foreign-made products subject to U.S. jurisdiction.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who will lead Russia’s delegation at the Geneva talks, responded harshly to Blinken’s statment.

“Demands of the United States and other NATO countries that we carry out some de-escalation measures on our territory are excluded from the discussion. This is a non-starter in the literal sense of the word,” Ryabkov said in an interview with the Tass news agency.

Russia wants the talks initially to produce formally binding security guarantees for itself with a pledge that NATO will not further expand eastward and the removal of U.S. troops and weapons from parts of Europe. But the U.S. and its allies say those are non-starters intentionally designed by Moscow to distract and divide. They insist that any Russian military intervention in Ukraine will prompt “massive consequences” that will dramatically disrupt Russia’s economy even if they have global ripple effects.

In a bid to forestall efforts by Russia to sow discord in the West, the Biden administration has gone out of its way to stress that neither Ukraine nor Europe more broadly will be excluded from any discussion of Ukraine’s or Europe’s security.

Biden administration officials allow that neither topic can be entirely ignored when senior American and Russian diplomats sit down in Geneva in Monday ahead of larger, more inclusive meetings in Brussels and Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday that will explore those issues in perhaps more depth.

Still, the mantras “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” and “nothing about Europe without Europe” have become almost cliche in Washington in recent weeks, and senior U.S. officials have gone so far as to say they expect Russia to lie about the content of Monday’s meeting to try to stoke divisions.

“We fully expect that the Russian side will make public comments following the meeting on Monday that will not reflect the true nature of the discussions that took place,” said one senior U.S. official who will participate in the talks. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

That official and others have urged allies to view with “extreme skepticism” anything Moscow says about the so-called Strategic Stability Talks and wait until they are briefed by the American participants to form opinions.

Blinken has accused Russia of “gaslighting” and mounting a full-scale disinformation campaign designed to blame Ukraine, NATO and particularly the United States for the current tensions and undercut Western unity. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin is engaged in an all-out war on the truth that ignores Russia’s own provocative and destabilizing actions over the course of the past decade.

“Russia seeks to challenge the international system itself and to unravel our trans-Atlantic alliance, erode our unity, pressure democracies into failure,” Blnken said on Friday, going through a list of offending Russian activity ranging from military intervention in Ukraine and Georgia to chemical weapons attacks on Putin critics to election interference in the U.S. and elsewhere, cybercrime and support for dictators.

Despite several conversations between President Joe Biden and Putin, including an in-person meeting last summer, Blinken said such behavior continues, at increasing risk to the post-World War II global order.

Thus, the intensified U.S. and allied effort to forge common positions on both the warnings and the “severe costs” to Russia if it moves against Ukraine. While expressions of unity have been forthcoming, Blinken was not optimistic about prospects for success in the talks.

“To the extent that there is progress to be made — and we hope that there is — actual progress is going to be very difficult to make, if not impossible, in an environment of escalation by Russia,” he said.

Russia, meanwhile, has spun a narrative that it is a threatened victim of Western aggression and wants quick results from the meetings despite what appear insurmountable differences.

Putin has repeatedly warned that Moscow will have to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West stonewalls Russia’s demands, and affirmed that NATO membership for Ukraine or the deployment of alliance weapons there is a red line for Moscow that it wouldn’t allow the West to cross.

“We have nowhere to retreat,” Putin said last month, adding that NATO could deploy missiles in Ukraine that would take just four or five minutes to reach Moscow. “They have pushed us to a line that we can’t cross. They have taken it to the point where we simply must tell them; ‘Stop!’”

Ryabkov and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who will lead the U.S. delegation, met over a working dinner Sunday night to discuss the upcoming talks.