By Blair Holtey
As soon as COVID-19 hit, I knew ministry would change in our hospital. I just didn’t know how. But then it happened. We started making phone calls to patients. Any patient in isolation became a candidate for a personal call, and most, if not all patients, thanked our team. This new form of ministry also gave us an opportunity to reach out to patients’ families in ways we never had. In a way, it gave us license to meet spiritual needs without feeling like we were soliciting. There was something very genuine about it.
Once this form of communication became popular, I realized that it would probably be a great way to reach out to people in my parish. After checking with my pastor, I began making calls from the parish office. They gave me a phone, desk and notebook with names to call. These people were not sick; they just didn’t want to go to church yet because they didn’t want to get COVID-19.
Many shared some guilty feelings because they had not been in church since March. Some did not realize that our local bishop had lifted the holy day of obligation. What a relief it brought to these souls. On other occasions, I reached people on their birthday. One fellow had forgotten it was his birthday, as the days had felt the same. He said the call “made his year.” On several calls, people started to share their personal hardships and how some family members, including spouses, had died from COVID-19, or of other causes during these past months without a proper funeral.
The most common script I use is: “During these times of COVID-19 and changes in our nation, we are calling to ask how you are coming along.” Open-ended questions like this bring out the feelings people have had pent-up inside. I have found that the phrase “these times” has given them a kind of permission to comment on whatever is going on with them in the moment, or with whatever has been festering.
Telechaplaincy is a sacred encounter, and those chance meetings sometimes feel like divine appointments. Most calls are brief, and the parishioner seems grateful. However, one particular call sticks in my mind. At first, the parishioner (I’ll call her “Jane”) wanted to know why a chaplain was calling. She asked my name, twice, and seemed pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t a solicitor. After sharing some of her family issues, she wanted to know if I had any prayer needs. Given that I was having eye surgery the very next day, I asked her to pray for it to be successful. As the conversation neared its end, we prayed together, and Jane said, “Chaplain, you will be on my prayer list. Can I be called again next week? Thank you for being my private psychologist.” Though I did not see her face during the call, I couldn’t help but think that she was half-smiling and winking an eye. As I write, it is my intention to follow up with another call. I can’t wait!
On other recent calls, I have told this story of my own, which many people have thanked me for:
I don’t normally look for a sign that things will be OK. Especially since Noah’s Ark. I don’t look for a dove to bring a branch to me after a flood of strong emotions. However, a bird did come to my aid two weeks ago. I had not known about what had happened at our Capitol until later in the afternoon, when I turned on the radio. As I drove home after a very long day serving at the bedside of patients, I realized that something wrong had happened and that the America I had known had changed. Breaking into the Capitol was very symbolic, and it bothered me because that structure represents part of the soul of America. As I got out of the car, I looked up into the tree in front of our home. Lo and behold. A bald eagle! It took off and circled our property and then headed over the ocean. I had not been looking for that symbol. Seeing that American icon gave me consolation. It gave me the hope I needed to go back and make 30 calls to the shut-ins of our parish – who had probably been watching the TV and wondering what had happened to America that afternoon.
COVID-19 will not get me down! If you look back into history, the bald eagle’s life was threatened. But now look! We just don’t know why God allows certain things to happen the way they do. Isaiah 55:8. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Nor are your ways my ways.”
We are looking to expand on the telechaplaincy concept. COVID-19 has not stopped us, telechaplaincy grew wings, and it helped us spread our wings. We’re flying high!
Blair Holtey, BCC, is spiritual care coordinator at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, FL.