AP News – In a pandemic-wracked year, religious leaders and spiritual counselors across the U.S. ministered to the ill, fed the hungry, consoled the bereaved. Some did so while recovering from COVID-19 themselves or mourning the loss of their own family members and friends.
At times, they despaired. So many people got sick, so many died, and these faith leaders couldn’t hug the ailing and the grieving, or hold their hands.
For safety’s sake, their congregations were kept away from in-person services for months, but the need to minister to them only intensified.
Amid the grief and anxiety, these faith leaders showed resilience and found reasons for hope as they re-imagined their mission. Here are some of their reflections on a trying year.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the Rev. Joseph Dutan lost his father to the coronavirus. Days earlier Dutan’s mentor and friend, 49-year-old Jorge Ortiz-Garay, had become the first Roman Catholic priest in the U.S. to die from COVID-19.
Dutan felt grief, fear, even doubt. He mourned his father while consoling the community of St. Brigid, a Catholic church in an area straddling Brooklyn and Queens that had among the highest infection rates in New York City. His grief, he said, made him better able to help others enduring similar pain.
“When they come in for a funeral Mass of a loved one … I feel I can relate to them, I can cry with them,” Dutan said. “I comfort them and tell them: ‘Things are going to be all right. We’re not alone; we’re in this together.’”
In the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Rabbi Noah Farkas said the pandemic’s toll has been particularly severe among the many older adults in his Valley Beth Shalom congregation.
He estimated that 25 to 50 of its roughly 5,000 members lost their lives to COVID-19 — and even more died, predominantly older congregants, “because COVID created a life situation that was untenable.”
Many were isolated in their rooms at assisted-care facilities, he said. “There was suicide, drug addiction, exhaustion — all the things you can think of when mental health deteriorates.”
Farkas conducted 20 funerals in January alone, as California was hit by a wave of infections, always wearing a mask and sometimes a face shield. He was saddened by the inability to hug mourners.
Among the hardest-hit churches has been Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Its leaders say more than 60 members of the congregation of about 800 have died of COVID-19. Almost all were part of the community of some 400 who attended services in Spanish.