The priest José Luis Garayoa survived typhoid fever, malaria, a kidnapping and the Ebola crisis as a missionary in Sierra Leone, but died of covid-19 after caring for the sick at his church in Texas already the grieving relatives of the deceased.
Garayoa, 68, served at Little Flower Catholic Church in El Paso and was one of three priests living in the local house of the Catholic Order of Augustinian Recollects who contracted the disease. Garayoa died two days before Thanksgiving.
He was aware of the dangers of covid, but he could not reject a parishioner who sought comfort and prayers when that person or a loved one was fighting the disease, according to retired hairdresser María Luisa Placencia, one of his parishioners.
“Whenever I saw someone suffering or worried about a child or a parent, I would pray with them and show compassion,” Placencia said.
Garayoa’s death underscores the personal risks run by spiritual leaders who care for the sick and their families, give extreme rites, or direct funerals for people who have died from covid. Many of them also face the challenge of leading divided congregations on the severity of the pandemic.
Caring for the sick or dying is one of the main functions of spiritual leaders of all religions. Susan Dunlap, a theologian at Duke University, said COVID-19 creates an even greater sense of obligation for clergy, because many patients are isolated from family members.
Terminal people often want to interact with God or fix things, Dunlap said, and a member of the clergy “can help facilitate that.”
This spiritual work is the key to the work of hospital chaplains, but it can expose them to the spread of viruses in the air or sometimes through touch.
Jayne Barnes, a chaplain at the Billings Clinic in Montana, said she tries to avoid physical contact with coronavirus patients, but it can be difficult to resist brief contact, which is often the best way to convey compassion.
“It is almost an awkward moment when you see a patient in distress, and you know that you should not hold his hand or give him a hug. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be there for them. They are people who cannot receive visitors, and they have many things to say. Sometimes they are angry with God, and they let me know. I’m there to listen, ”Barnes said.
Yet, he said, there are times when the despair runs so deep that he can’t help but “put on a glove and hold a patient’s hand.”
Barnes was diagnosed with Covid around Thanksgiving. He has recovered and has a “better understanding” of what patients are enduring.
Dealing with so much suffering affects even the most hardened doctors and nurses, he said.
The Billings Clinic staff were devastated when a well-loved doctor died of COVID, and they rallied in support of a nurse who was seriously ill but recovered.
“We not only take care of the patients, but we are there for the staff as well, and I think we have been an important asset,” Barnes said of the hospital chaplains.
In Abington, Pennsylvania, Salem Baptist Church Pastor Marshall Mitchell explained that part of his spiritual duty is to persuade members of his congregation, and the African American community at large, to take precautions to avoid the disease. So he allowed photographers to capture the moment when, in December, he received his first dose of the vaccine.
“As the pastor of one of the largest churches in the Philadelphia region, it behooves me to demonstrate the powers of both science and faith,” he said.
Mitchell said he could use his credibility to convince other African Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, that a vaccine can save lives. Many are skeptical.
The politicization of precautions to avoid infection, such as masks and social distancing, has put many pastors in a difficult position.
Mitchell said he has no patience with people who refuse to wear masks.
“I keep them very far from me,” he added.
Jeff Wheeler, senior pastor at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Central Church, said his church encourages wearing masks and that most parishioners do. However, the underlying tension is reflected in his message to members on the church website:
“As we move forward, we simply ask you to avoid embarrassing, judging or making critical comments to those who are wearing or not wearing masks.”
Sheikh Tarik Ata, who heads the Islamic Foundation of Orange County, California, explains that the Quran calls on Muslims to take steps to take care of their health and that members of the congregation largely comply with the guidelines against the covid.
“So our members have no problem with the mandate to wear a mask,” he said.
Covid-19 has hit the Muslim population of Orange County hard, Ata said. Religion has become an important source of comfort for members who have lost their jobs and have had to fight illness or find daycare.
“Our faith says that, no matter how difficult the situation, we always have access to God and so the future will be better,” said Ata.
Adam Morris, rabbi of the Micah Temple in Denver (Colorado), said that he has used video on the internet to meet with coronavirus patients. When you meet with members of your congregation in person, such as at funeral services, you worry that with the mask on people will not appreciate the concern and compassion you feel for their situation.
He officiates graveside funerals for a small number of mourners, but requires that all participants wear a mask.
Practicing Muslims and Jews believe it is important to bury people quickly after death, Morris said.
“Some traditions and rituals must continue, with or without covid,” he concluded.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is the newsroom of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), which produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Surveys, KHN is one of KFF’s top three programs.
Original English version: https://bit.ly/2P7GQvp