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Chaplains Are on the Front Lines

March 25, 2020

As the world trembles in fear because of the COVID-19 virus, Christian Reformed Church in North America chaplains are on the front lines in hospitals, clinics, and hospice-care centers.

Also during this time, chaplains are serving in the military and in many businesses.

“Our chaplains are specially trained, called, and ordained by the church, and sent by Jesus Christ to provide spiritual care to people in pain or in spiritual distress,” said Sarah Roelofs, director of the CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care office.

“We have answered the call to minister in places and locations that are unsafe because we have been equipped and trained. The spiritual need is great. . . . We encounter and minister to people who are isolated from God and others as they struggle emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. We seek to provide care that encompases all of the dimensions of wellness.”

Currently, Roelofs said, many chaplains are seeing the heartbreaking and disastrous effects of COVID 19 in their communities. “They are experiencing firsthand the immense strain on the already stressed medical system.Staffing in hospitals is lower as staff members must self-quarantine,” she said.

Adding to their work, many chaplains also serve on hospital ethics committees that are discussing how best to use health-care resources when, as many news outlets are reporting, rationing of these resources becomes necessary. This can involve agonizing decisions about choosing which patients to treat aggressively  and which ones not to.   

“Chaplains bring unique expertise to an ethics committee. Chaplains are trained to see the work of God in all circumstances,” said Roelofs. “When they sit on an ethics committee, they broaden the picture.”

In recent days, Roelofs has been receiving stories from the field, giving insight into the challenges chaplains are now facing. These stories portray some of the hardships involved in working in hospitals that are urgently trying to navigate the virus crisis. They also speak of habits and practices that keep them close to God as they work in the military and in various other settings.

Here are a few of those stories:

Karen Norris, chaplain at Stollery Children’s Hospital, Edmonton, Alta.
“In dealing with COVID-19, my province went from our first unconfirmed case to 22/23 confirmed cases in a week. Two of my six colleagues are in self-isolation for 14 days, one for COVID-like symptoms and another due to returning from another country. So one-third of our team is missing.  . . . A family I’ve followed as an inpatient for nine months gave me a hug on discharge day, and I internally winced. Then, as I was visiting with a newer family, they acknowledged their fear of the virus getting into the hospital, and I realized I was sitting close to them and that that might have made them uncomfortable. I want to do my job, but I also want to keep patients safe. Because I had a scratchy throat, I did not visit patients yesterday. I am feeling fine today, though. Should I have dinner with friends? What if I pick the virus up at work and bring it to friends? And vice versa. I’m sure I’m not the only one hearing and facing these questions daily, so I just wanted to share and offer up a prayer for all of us -- for compassionate presence, for wise decisions, for health and safety in these challenging times.”

Albert Kae, substance-abuse program chaplain, Los Angeles Union Mission
“Our mission is very busy right now because we are the only mission open here on skid row. The most vulnerable of people are right outside our doors. How can we turn them away? Fortunately we have a public health clinic inside the mission that can respond to them. A lot of the counseling I have with those living on the addiction unit now has to take place over the phone or computer. I also need to check in with people who work for me, and I need to listen to and pray for them. The role of the chaplain is to be calm in a very anxious time. I know the virus is here at the mission, but I take precautions. When I go home at night, I wash my clothes and take a shower before I go in to greet my wife.”

Femke Visser-Elenbaas, chaplain at Hamilton Health Services in Ontario
“We will miss three of our seven team members these coming weeks, due to self-isolation of those who returned from international travels and a vacation. I recognize the challenge of ‘Do I go and visit patients and provide staff support on the units while having a mild cough due to a cold that started two weeks ago, or do I tie myself to office work?’ It's hard. I don't want to put anyone else at risk, but I also don't want to be unnecessarily secluding myself and withholding support from people who may need it. May we all receive strength and wisdom to discern the right thing to do as we live in solidarity with one another. Throughout the whole week last week, I found I carried the tension of ‘Whom do I visit, and how much do I visit patients?’ When on-call, it's easier; you go where the pager tells you to go. But I typically cover pediatric units, where parents who are there with their children are already super-anxious. Is it helpful or not helpful to visit new families? There is tension in wanting to visit families while also wanting to be careful not to add to the chances of spreading this virus, or to add to the stress of families by virtue of their already-present anxiety.”

Lieut. Lloyd Wicker, U.S. Navy chaplain, Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Italy
“Please continue to pray for Italy. Three weeks ago we had three cases. Today we have just under 54,000. Just today we added nearly 6,557 newly confirmed cases (793 died today). Most of the dead are elderly. Hospitals are overwhelmed and forced to turn away patients they deem less likely to survive so that they can use their limited resources on those they think they can save. As a friend of mine said, ‘It may seem like no big deal until it's your parents or grandparents getting turned away at the hospital.’ A week ago I was one who leaned ignorantly toward the notion that ‘This is just a bad flu’ -- clearly that is not our reality. Being slow to act has had a great cost. This is by no means a call to panic. . . but it certainly is a call to PRAY. Clearing out your grocery store doesn't make a lot of sense . . . but it would be a good time to stop diminishing the situation and complaining about the inconveniences of events being canceled. Nothing should make you happier than being able to look back someday and say your leaders overreacted by imposing safety measures.”

Thomas Walcott, chaplain of the U.S. Coast Guard, Washington, D.C.
“Because summer is the time for Coast Guard members to move to different locations, there is a lot of uncertainty about what impact this crisis will have on moving (and related items like selling homes, giving notice at jobs, seeking new employment, etc). There is a lot of uncertainty for the Coast Guard, but that is true with everyone. As the crisis grows larger each day, there is a sense of urgency to get ahead of it, but it’s too late for that. Many people in D.C. need to work because their efforts are critical to addressing the crisis, but at the same time there is concern for their health and that of their families. The Coast Guard itself has been busy during this time. All issues with ships -- cruise ships and freighters -- involve the Coast Guard when they run into trouble. The Coast Guard is a first responder organization, so they -- as usual -- have been called on to med-evac people with a variety of illnesses, including the coronavirus. That means they have to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has or might have the virus, so over time there will be fewer people available to do the mission.”

Charles (Chuck) Cornelisse, Marketplace Chaplain
“I live just outside San Antonio, Tex. I serve as a part-time chaplain with Marketplace Chaplains and am assigned to six different companies in the area. San Antonio has a huge medical community, both civilian and military. So while there have been confirmed cases of the coronavirus, in my opinion they are being handled quite efficiently. We have had a number of people sent to one of our military bases from cruise ships, which didn't make some members of the community very happy. But as far as my read on the current situation, the cases have been handled well. On the other hand, many people are panic-shopping, and there is a shortage of groceries. . . . The employees that I have encountered at my companies are split over being a bit concerned and nervous versus being quite confident that their behaviors and actions will not cause them to become infected. One of my companies has requested a temporary cessation of chaplain visits, but it's primarily due to lack of work through government contracts. My other companies are open to my presence and ministry, though some have taken some steps to limit public interaction. I have had several conversations that concern faith and God and even the end times. So far I've had only one employee tell me that they are scared for their health and that of their children. One of the main points I've asked employees to consider is that when they look back after this pandemic has passed, how will they assess their behavior -- Have they been selfish, or have they been considerate of others, caring for the little ones and the elderly in their neighborhoods, and more kind than usual? I encourage them to consider those questions now so that when they do reflect on this time in their lives, they will be able to be thankful and have a sense of satisfaction with their actions.”