By now we’re all used to the idea that most religious services are being held remotely. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss the physical human connection we feel when we’re gathered in community. It will have to do for the time being.
It’s been interesting to watch how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out in the spiritual-religious world. We see extremes from ministers who refuse to practice social distancing to drive-up services to Pope Francis giving the world an Urbi et Orbi blessing back in March, usually only imparted on Christmas and Easter. He did this in an empty St. Peter’s Square after he said a prayer for the health of everyone in the world. He even brought a crucifix from San Marcello al Corso, one that was used in a procession through Rome during the miraculous plague cure of 1522.
For us, on our little Island, less than 10 miles from “the rest of America,” we’re feeling the effects of the coronavirus in our daily lives. Grandparents can’t hug their grandchildren, children can’t hug their parents, and those on the frontlines must take every precaution and distance themselves from their own loved ones. Strange days, indeed.
Wondering about the side effects of the coronavirus on our faith and our sense of hope has been rumbling around in the back of my mind. What do you pray for? Healing — but healing from illness or healing of the divisions between us, which feel even wider right now. Both, I hope.
It’s good time to check in with our Island hospital chaplains, so I reached out to Rabbi Lori Shaller, who serves as a chaplain at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. I also know her from her work with Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m in awe of Rabbi Shaller’s ability to actually wait before she speaks. I’m a blurter, words shoot from my mouth sometimes without a thought or a filter. The rabbi thinks about what she’s going to say, and chooses her words carefully.
She explained that up until recently, there were five members of the Island Clergy Group who took on a weeklong chaplain rotation, on call and available to do rounds visiting with patients and staff to get a sense of what was happening on the units.
“In preparation for a surge in coronavirus cases, we’ve changed that,” Shaller said. “Now there are 14 of us, each of us on call once a week, and a backup person.”
The chaplains are in service whenever they’re needed right now, 24/7.
“The availability is to the staff as much as it is to the community members, as well as parents, as well as families, as well as emergency workers like EMTs, police, and fire folks as well.”
Another major change for the chaplains is that they can’t physically be with the people they are serving. There’s not an infinite quantity of personal protective equipment available to use, and currently staff is limiting the number of people they’re letting into the hospital. Chaplains are available by phone, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, whatever communication method works.
“So that is a huge change,” Rabbi Shaller said, “because so much of chaplaincy has to do with being able to sit and listen deeply and be present to a person. Not being in physical proximity puts distance between us. For right now anyway, we’re not in the hospital, which makes sense.”
The chaplains are working with the hospital to create a “serenity space,” inside the building for staff with inspirational readings, complete with calming sounds like rain or waves, and cozy chairs. There will also be a portal on the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital’s website, where staff can go to hear inspirational readings or prayers.
“We’re collecting all sorts of things,” Rabbi Shaller said.
They’re also drawing on resources through Mass General Hospital and Bellevue Hospital in New York. If a chaplain can’t be there, she explained, a doctor, nurse, or other caregiver may want to know how they could pray with others, if they felt it would be helpful.
“We’re also going to be inviting the community to send appreciations and drawings or artwork to post in the serenity room and on the web portal,” she explained. “The chaplains are going to be directing a specific prayer towards staff, at 8 am and 8 pm. We can publish that prayer in the paper, and the community could also pray at the same time, with intentions toward the staff there. These are people who are working so hard and they’re there for us.”
I asked Rabbi Shaller about stress and about how she’s holding up herself.
“We’re in sort of a holding pattern and that’s a very anxiety-provoking place for folks, so I’m really aware of that for people. That anxiety can express itself in so many ways. I’m just trying to be really present for people wherever they are,” she said. “There’s hyperactivity and stress, and worry, worry about the things that don’t seem relevant. I know that my prayer life right now is really, really important to me. I’ve started meditating as a regular practice because of this, because I want to be a calming and soothing presence for people.”
All of this stress is compounded by the fact that prayer is a pretty solitary thing right now, because we can’t be in community. Zoom services are very different from being in a house of worship, although Rabbi Shaller says she thinks the Island houses of worship are doing an amazing job rising to the challenge of the times.
I wondered if she could give us, and me, something hopeful to think about. Rabbi Shaller came back to that sense of community, of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Even though we’re in a unique moment in our human history, she said, we’ve been here before.
“Because of courageous healthcare workers and brilliant scientists and the incredible resilience that people discover in themselves when they’re pushed to the edge . . . do remember that we have that built-in resilience as a community and as a species, to draw from that well of knowing that as a species and as a community we can come together and be available to each other.”
She admitted that people do have their faith shaken during times such as these, but this is when we should rely on community and remember that we don’t have to be in it alone.
“Look at this Island and the incredible things that people are doing to help each other,” she said.
“Look at the ways in which younger people are knocking on doors, saying ‘let me get your groceries for you.’ It’s great if you’re part of a religious community or spiritual community so you can draw on that, but even if you’re not, you’re part of this Island community and there’s hope in the way we’ve come together to take care of each other.”
I went down the less-popular path, though, and asked what she might have to say about some folks who feel that God is somehow cleaning house right now, punishing us for all the wrong we’ve done.
“That’s not the God that I pray to,” she said. “The God I pray to wants to be in a relationship with us, wants us to survive and do great things. You know, we’re always limiting God, but God is limitless.”
Rabbi Shaller talked about the many names Judaism has for the divine. “It’s not just my father, my lord, it’s also the indwelling presence. We have so many ways and methods and names for God. If that doesn’t show us that He is limitless, I don’t know what does.”
(The chaplains are available to all, regardless of their religious affiliation. The on-call chaplain’s schedule and contact information is available at the hospital chapel, and chaplains can be reached by notifying your nurse, doctor, or any member of the patient care staff.)
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