The 12 months of the pandemic of the religion leaders: grief, consolation, resilience
(AP) – In a pandemic-ridden year, United States religious leaders and spiritual advisors served the sick, fed the hungry and comforted the bereaved. Some did so while recovering from COVID-19 or mourning the loss of their own family members and friends.
Sometimes they despaired. So many people got sick, so many died, and these religious leaders could not hug or hold hands with the sick and the mourners.
Their communities were kept away from personal service for months for security reasons, but the need to serve them only increased.
Amid the grief and fear, these leaders showed resilience and found reasons for hope as they re-introduced their mission. Here are some of her reflections on a difficult year.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Rev. Joseph Dutan lost his father to the coronavirus. Days earlier, Dutan’s mentor and friend, 49-year-old Jorge Ortiz-Garay, was the first Roman Catholic priest in the United States to die of COVID-19.
Dutan felt sadness, fear, and even doubt. He mourned his father while comforting the St. Brigid Ward, a Catholic church in an area between Brooklyn and Queens that had some of the highest infection rates in New York City. His grief, he said, made him feel better at helping others endure similar pain.
“When you come to a loved one’s funeral mass … I feel like I can relate to you, I can cry with you,” said Dutan. “I comfort them and tell them, ‘Things will be fine. We are not alone; we are in it together. ‘”
In the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Rabbi Noah Farkas said the number of pandemics was particularly high among the many older adults in his Beth Shalom community.
He estimated that 25 to 50 of the approximately 5,000 members lost their lives to COVID-19 – and even more died, mostly older parishioners, “because COVID created a living situation that was unsustainable”.
Many are isolated in their rooms in assisted care facilities, he said. “There was suicide, drug addiction, exhaustion – all the things to think about when mental health worsens.”
Farkas conducted 20 funerals in January alone when a wave of infections hit California who always wore a mask and sometimes a face shield. He was saddened by the inability to hug those who grieved.
One of the churches hardest hit was St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Its leaders say more than 60 community members out of approximately 800 have died from COVID-19. Almost all of them were part of the approximately 400-strong community who attended services in Spanish.
Bishop Paul Egensteiner, who oversees St. Peter and other congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the New York City area, said pastors had been emotionally burdened.
“They had nowhere to go, couldn’t take a vacation,” he said. “It was a huge burden – figuring out how we keep people connected, how we conduct services and hospital visits.”
Imam Ahmed Ali of IQRA Masjid Community & Tradition, a mosque and community center in Brooklyn, took action in late March after a funeral home asked for his help in retrieving the bodies of people who had died of COVID-19 from hospitals pick up and give them funeral rites. Ali, like others, was afraid of the rapidly spreading virus, but he felt a calling to serve God and his religious duty.
He began moving corpses in voluntary shifts of up to 20 hours, putting them in freezers at the funeral home, washing them and wrapping them in a white cloth, and taking them to cemeteries for burial.
He usually performs Janazah or funeral prayer only a few times a year. At the height of the New York City crisis, he made up to 20 in a single day, and over three months monitored or attended a total of nearly 300 funerals.
“It was a really challenging time and a huge loss for every community,” said Ali. “I pray we don’t have to see this type of pandemic again.”
The Friendswood United Methodist Church in the Houston suburbs was spared a high death toll.
However, an active member of the 900-strong congregation who died of COVID-19 was “a pillar of the Church” who served on many of its boards and committees and won friends for his good humor and generosity, said Jim Bass, who Pastor.
“He was 74 years old but had no underlying health conditions that we knew about,” said Bass. “When he got sick, we really enjoyed our community.”
Like thousands of places of worship across the country, Valley Beth Shalom quickly switched to online services.
Farkas and his team also launched what is known as a “war on isolation,” including a new telephone buddy system to connect isolated people who have lost their human contact. Volunteers selected community members to call them at least once a week, and friendships developed between 20-year-olds and eighty-year-olds.
Without personal admiration, Farkas encouraged community events that adhere to health guidelines. For the last Purim holidays, the community organized a drive-through carnival in the parking lot, in which around 160 families took part.
“We learned a lot,” said Farkas, “but if I had to choose one thing, we didn’t give up.”
Friendswood Methodist spent more than $ 20,000 last year on video equipment to offer online worship services. Personal services have now resumed with a quarter of participants prior to the pandemic. Bass said there was enough room in the 1,100-seat sanctuary for adequate social distancing. he encourages worshipers to chant hymns softly through their masks.
For Esther Roman, a chaplain at New York’s Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, the pandemic meant serving one grieving family after another.
She remembered sitting three feet from a ruined woman, tears streaming down her masked face, as she asked Roman a fearful question: Why did God let her otherwise healthy, living mother die? The chaplain couldn’t comfort the woman like she would have done before the pandemic: by holding her hand and squeezing.
“It was one of those moments when I refuse to offer support in the many ways I used to be able to,” said Roman. “I had to try to let my words do the hug.”
They and others had to learn to convey love or support through digital screens, face shields and masks.
“We all took up the challenge,” said Roman. “We were drafted into this war.”
As the New York City pandemic subsided in January, St. Peter suffered a new trauma: severe flood damage from a cracked municipal water pipe.
The Midtown Manhattan community is known for its Jazz Vespers program. The heavily damaged items included valuable musical instruments and archives from several jazz greats. It is further complicated
plans to resume personal worship, for which no date has yet been set.
However, ward president Christopher Vergara said the ward has grown closer together as participation in online services has increased.
“We set up a community network where people can check with others to see how they are doing,” Vergara said. “We started a lot of small online groups – knitting, history, art.”
“The tide was a bad thing, but we really clung to each other,” he added. “We went from surviving to thriving.”
Friendswood Methodist was also badly damaged by flooding – in his case, when several pipes froze and then burst in the middle of the recent severe storm in Texas.
Bass was amazed when more than 50 parishioners responded to his 911 call for help, rushing to the unlit church with brooms and squeegees, and working to clear the water.
“We say the church is not the building, but the people. And it’s true, ”said Bass. “This really reminded people of the importance of community.”
Christopher Johnson, an associate pastor for Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, said his Houston congregation was already suffering from lost social interaction, lost jobs and food insecurity when it was dealt a new blow by the death of his childhood friend George Floyd in May, hands of a white Policemen in Minneapolis.
Johnson remembered Floyd as a respected community member helping host a church party with free AIDS testing when Houston hosted the Super Bowl in 2017.
Johnson said Floyd’s death, which sparked nationwide protests and resulted in racial injustice, had a special impact in part because it occurred amid a pandemic that was causing a disproportionate toll on African Americans.
“People had to take a break, and it was during that break that we realized that the world had changed,” said Johnson.
Johnson said his church responded to the pandemic by working with local leaders to provide personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing for the community. They used radio broadcasts to discuss health disparities, vaccinations and the recent cancellation of a nationwide mask mandate.
The pandemic, Johnson said, “has called us to reconsider and re-imagine what our philosophy of service in the age of COVID really is.”
The Associated Press’s coverage of religion is supported by the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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