Chaplains comfort and share grief during COVID-19

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The sound of “Taps,” played by a lone trumpeter, echoed in the courtyard of the Dallas retirement community in tribute to a recently deceased resident.

John Gould plays a hymn on his trumpet for Joan Jackson in the courtyard of the CC Young Senior Living community in Dallas after Jackson’s husband Robert passed away Sunday, March 22, 2020. When social distancing prevented a typical memorial service, Gould offered to play a few hymns outside in the common area. Photo from video by Eric Markinson. 

John Gould plays a hymn on his trumpet for Joan Jackson in the courtyard of the CC Young Senior Living community in Dallas after Jackson’s husband Robert passed away Sunday, March 22, 2020. When social distancing prevented a typical memorial service, Gould offered to play a few hymns outside in the common area. Photo from video by Eric Markinson.

Social distancing because of COVID-19 meant grieving widow Joan Jackson kept her distance from 94-year-old musician John Gould. So did other residents of the CC Young Senior Living community, who nonetheless viewed the March 22 tribute to Bob Jackson from their balconies and other parts of the community.

 “I am moved beyond words at John’s offer to do this in memory of Bob and for CC Young to allow it,” Joan Jackson said to a CC Young representative, who shared it with United Methodist News. “It seemed like a fitting memorial for Bob since we could not hold the usual traditional memorial service.”

Flexibility is key for United Methodist chaplains as they cope with families who can’t see their loved ones — sometimes even dying loved ones — because of the coronavirus that has killed thousands as it spreads around the world.

“I think we are learning new ways to care for one another,” said the Rev. Kellie Sanford, a United Methodist pastor at CC Young. “I like to think of it as we are reaching out with our hearts now, instead of just our hands. I think there is some good that is evolving out of this, even though it does make our work a little more challenging and it takes more time.”

United Methodist chaplains in hospitals, retirement communities and hospices are all navigating new ground, as the personal contact they count on to help comfort their charges is eliminated or severely cut back. Giving emotional and pastoral support is much more difficult under these conditions.

“They’re having to be very creative in how they continue to support people because of the conditions in which they are doing it,” said the Rev. Mitchell Lewis, director of endorsement and the endorsing agent for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s United Methodist Endorsing Agency.

The Rev. Kellie Sanford leads a worship service by closed circuit television at the CC Young Senior Living facility in Dallas. Photo by Jennifer Griffin. 

The Rev. Kellie Sanford leads a worship service by closed circuit television at the CC Young Senior Living facility in Dallas. Photo by Jennifer Griffin. 

“Some of the people that they visit may be from the doorway instead of immediately at the bedside. … I’ve heard of a chaplain who is giving virtual hugs from a distance.”

Heath screenings at facilities like Westminster Retirement Community in Winter Park, Florida, take time and senior management is not exempt, said the Rev. Jeffrey Parkkila, senior chaplain.

“We’re temperature checked,” Parkkila said. “Anything over 99 (degrees) we’re not able to enter. … When I go home every night, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to return to work the next day.”

Sanford can no longer gather people for church services or Bible studies at CC Young.

“We have a closed circuit television station on campus, so now we’re broadcasting on the local channel here Sunday morning worship,” she said. “Then on Wednesday, I’m doing a Bible study. We’re doing that by conference call.”

It’s part of a chaplain’s job to also be there for staff, in addition to patients and family members. 

The Rev. Amanda Borchik visits with a young patient at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. Borchik is staff chaplain at the facility. Photo by Cayce Long. 

The Rev. Amanda Borchik visits with a young patient at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. Borchik is staff chaplain at the facility. Photo by Cayce Long.

“I’m trying to remain very focused on maintaining a standard of care that children and families would always receive here,” said the Rev. Amanda Borchik, staff chaplain at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

“And then also providing more care for our staff. ... My congregation is nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists and physical therapists and social workers. Part of my job is to care for them.”

There are about 1,600 chaplains who are endorsed by The United Methodist Church, Lewis said.

“(They) serve in a variety of settings — healthcare, military, prison,” he said. “Some of them are spiritual directors or behavior health therapists or marriage and family therapists. We even endorse people to serve as interim pastors and life coaches.” Endorsement certifies that a clergy person is credentialed by The United Methodist Church, and is authorized to perform religious ministries required in those special settings.

The trickiest question chaplains get in times like these is “Why?”

“I think really faithful people have asked that question for a long time,” Borchik said. She noted that Jesus asked similar questions: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” during his crucifixion and “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Borchik said that such questions are often a way of lamenting a bad or tragic situation.

“The Psalms also do that,” she said. Psalms 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85 and 90 are laments of deep sorrow usually evoked following natural disasters, plague or oppression by other nations.

“Sometimes asking a question is a way to say something we don’t know how to say,” Borchik said. “So I’ve learned to hear that question as part of our grief and learned how to say, ‘I don’t know. But I am here, and I’m really sorry and I know that God grieves with us.’”

Eric Markinson, hospice chaplain at CC Young, said it’s important to remind Christians that Jesus experienced life and death so “we would remember that life continues without end in God’s presence.”

“Now that life and death are so acutely, electrically present in people’s hearts, bodies and minds, I think it’s an even clearer reminder,” he said. “So I think faith for me is incredibly healing.”

Parkkila said there had yet to be a positive COVID-19 test at Westminster Retirement Community.

“But it’s a demon and it’s coming,” he said. “If there’s any time that humanity needs to get together, it’s that time right now.”

Patterson is a reporter for UM News, both based in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free daily or weekly digests.

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