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CRC Chaplains Minister during COVID-19

December 23, 2020

Although they continue to share the hope of the gospel, dealing with the difficulties and the grief caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on many Christian Reformed Church in North America chaplains this year.

One hospital chaplain recounts having to stand often at the bedsides of dying patients and then to provide comfort to family members. Another hospital chaplain describes trying to find ways to support doctors, nurses, and aides who are overworked and overstressed from dealing daily with fallout from the coronavirus.

Unable to visit prisoners, a prison chaplain has turned to prayer as an important aspect of her ministry. And a military chaplain from Kosovo, like many others, has had to deal with being quarantined often because of the virus — yet he is confident that, amid all of the turmoil of 2020, hope is real.

The CRCNA has 150 chaplains at work in health care, the military, the workplace, and homeless shelters. This year has been especially busy and hard for them, just as it has been for many of us, said Sarah Roelofs, director of the CRC’s Chaplaincy and Care Ministry.

“This year has been one of the most challenging for our chaplains as they minister in their institutions and organizations due to multiple factors including COVID-19, racial injustice, and political and religious divisions,” said Roelofs.

“They are beacons of the gospel in their institutions, but now many of our chaplains feel like they are running on empty as they seek to encourage and care for staff and patients who have been in long, drawn-out traumatic events.”

Still, she said, these chaplains continue in their ministry, reflecting the Chaplaincy and Care motto, “Being There in Moments That Matter.”

“The work that our chaplains do is important, specialized, and vital,” said Roelofs. “Our ministry is specially posed to provide encouragement, understanding, and resources . . . on behalf of our churches and the denomination.”

For this story, we asked  a range of chaplains a series of questions via email. Several chaplains responded, and here is an edited version of their responses.

Standing by the Bedside

David Leung, chaplain at a hospice care facility in Vancouver, B.C., has found that this has been a year filled with grief. Sadness has taken over in so many ways, and there has been a darkness to address.

“I felt like we have been surrounded by grief,” he said. “Programs, services, and family visitations were greatly restricted this year. Residents lost routines and connections, and during outbreaks they were not even allowed to leave their rooms.”

This environment has definitely weighed on everyone’s spirit day in and day out, said Leung, and this has been especially true for direct-care staff, some of whom Leung has had the privilege to pray with after residents have died.

The long-term care unit in which he works, he said, has experienced wave after wave of coronavirus outbreaks. Things would slow down for a while, and then the unit would get slammed again.

“While a number of our residents recovered, many lost their lives to COVID-19. . . .”

Even in the midst of such sorrow, however, Leung said he witnessed “incredible acts of compassion and sacrifice from the staff and residents alike.”

He was aware of residents going to their doorways [when they needed to stay in their rooms] to check up on one another. Retired staff came back to work on understaffed units.

Even though many of his experiences have been draining, the chaplain said he has hope as he is “reminded of the promise of Advent: that the light of Christ has entered into our world, and this light continues to shine in the darkness. Christ continues to shine in the darkness.”

Being There for Grieving Nurses and Aides

Recently ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, Marcia Fairrow works as a chaplain for Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Mich. She too has had her difficulties.

“I have two challenges that I'm faced with each day,” she said. “The first is my colleagues: nurses and CNAs [certified nursing assistants] are overworked and overstressed.”

The second challenge is having to talk with families over the phone instead of face-to-face, she said, “especially when they cry and ask why they can't be with the spouse they have been with for over 50 years, or when I have to tell large families that only two persons can come in to be with a loved one who is dying.”

But Fairrow said she also has joy and comfort.

“My joy at work comes from overhead music,” she said. “When a COVID-19 patient is successfully taken off a vent or is cleared for home, a musical number called Here Comes the Sun [by George Harrison] is played overhead, and a lullaby is played whenever a baby is born. It is simple but so amazing how much joy those two musical numbers bring to my heart.”

A comforting thought that she tries always to remember, Fairrow said, “is that this world belongs to God—it's not mine. Although he and I have conversations about this all the time, I always walk away knowing it's not mine to fix. Somehow that lifts the burden.”

Praying for People behind Bars

Back in early March of 2020, Lisa DeYoung was making frequent trips every week to the Richard A. Handlon correctional facility in Ionia, Mich., to meet with students in the Calvin Prison Initiative program as their chaplain.

The program is an effort by Calvin University to offer classes to prisoners, who can work toward earning a bachelor’s degree at Calvin.

“I would listen to individuals talk about their lives, the pressures of being in an academic program behind bars, the joys and griefs of everyday life, and how these things are made even more difficult in prison,” said DeYoung.

She was also leading groups of students in contemplative prayer and spiritual reflection.

“These were rich times of storytelling, corporate lament, and personal soul-searching. I miss all of it. I have not been back to the facility since March 12, 2020, when we all went on lockdown,” she said.

As the virus has spread, she said, the facility has been hit hard with COVID-19. “At one point there were over 750 positive cases [out of 1,200 inmates], and currently there are over 90 staff members who have contracted the virus,” she said.

Unable to meet with the prisoners, she keeps imagining what it is like for them. “No visits from family or friends,” said DeYoung. “No education, work, or religious services. It’s one thing to be told, ‘You should probably stay home.’ It’s something else entirely to be told, ‘You are not leaving that cell.’”

Unable to visit the prison, DeYoung said she prays for these students who are incarcerated, and she knows they are able to pray for her and others who are part of the Calvin initiative. This bond in the Spirit is strong and deep, she said, fostered by many hours in the classroom and in services and simply in spending time together.

“For this, I’m deeply grateful. I haven’t stopped praying for my students, and I’m certain many of them continue to pray for us.”

While the program is on hold, DeYoung said, she is making plans for the future — with hope and trust “that someday there will be a time of rejoicing and reunion and that ministry will be up and running again.”

“COVID-19 is scary for all of us,” she added. “But when you are stuck behind a barbed-wire fence, completely dependent on a person’s goodwill to care for you, COVID feels like a death sentence. . . . Please remember these hidden people in your prayers today.”

Missing Human Touch

Working at Denver Health hospital in Denver, Colo., Victor Perez has to take different approaches in visiting with COVID-19 patients.

“Depending on the reason for the visit and the specific unit requirements for personal-protection equipment, I may be allowed to enter the patient’s room — or I may not,” said the CRCNA chaplain.

Time and time again he realizes how the pandemic causes isolation — and not just for COVID-19 patients. Perez recalled that one day the palliative care team requested that someone from spiritual care visit a patient who had just received a diagnosis of stage-4 cancer.

During Perez’s visit, he said, the patient confessed, “What hurt me most was not having to hear about the stage-4 cancer results, but that no one from my family could be there, present at that time to hold my hand.”

Perez said he experiences similar emotions. Throughout the pandemic, the biggest challenge for him as a chaplain has been the absence of human touch.

“There is something about human, physical contact that brings the bodily senses and emotional feelings together, allowing us to connect with the spiritual anxiety and pain of a human being,” he said.

“Chaplaincy is known as a ministry of presence. How can we show authentic concern, sympathy, and care? How can we provide emotional and spiritual healing when there is a deep gap of human isolation filled with fear?”

Although he may not have the option for human touch right now as a chaplain, Perez said he keeps turning to his faith and knowing that “the connection through the Holy Spirit of God is still present and that the touch of God’s grace, love, and compassion is what unites us.”

A Military Chaplain Offers Hope

At the beginning of 2020, Cory Van Sloten was serving as pastor at Lebanon CRC in rural Sioux Center, Iowa, and as a full-time support coordinator for Army Survivor Outreach Services for the Iowa National Guard.

Then COVID-19 hit Iowa, and in March the church turned to online services. Meanwhile, Van Sloten was preparing to deploy to Kosovo in September with his unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Iowa Army National Guard.

They began their deployment at Fort Bliss, Texas, in September, he said, where half of the month was spent quarantining. As the troops wanted to get on with their mission, the virus became an enemy keeping them separated and inside.

And once they shipped out, they still confronted COVID-19.

“We spent another month in Hohenfels, Germany, again half of it quarantining. We have now been in Kosovo for a month, and many of us, myself included, have had to quarantine again due to either testing positive or having had close contact with someone who did,” he said.

Being there to share the message of Christ in whatever ways he can, even in the trauma of COVID-19, however, keeps him grateful, he said, “for the opportunity to share the hope that we have with soldiers on this deployment.”

Just as Van Sloten served as a pastor in Iowa, he said, he is able to speak about and model God’s love with soldiers — in this case with those stationed far away from home during this bleak Christmas season. As they face hardships, he knows he has a role to play.

“Chaplaincy is a healing, reconciling ministry of God, an expression and extension of God's activity and mission in the world,” said Van Sloten.

Especially in this year of disease and racial and political unrest, Van Sloten said he is grateful to believe what Hebrews 11:16 says about having a "longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” And he takes this longing into his ministry as a chaplain.

Chaplains, he said, “provide pastoral ministry in specialized settings to people who are hurting or in crisis, uprooted or dislocated. And where the presence of God is, there is always hope, even in, and, especially in, 2020.”