It seems to be a common headline that we will not, or in many cases should not, return to “normal” after Covid-19. The “should not”, of course, referring to positive changes or adaptations we were forced or encouraged to make, such as more interaction with and attention to family at home, to extended family and friends (even if via phone or social media), more time reading or meditating, slowing down our pace, taking walks, etc. And this also applies to business, religious groups, and social gatherings as well, i.e. how can they continue to use all that they learned and developed during these times, especially regarding the use of technology or to promote good practices people can do from home, without having to rely on everything at, or coming from, headquarters.
I hope this concept of welcoming a return to a normal schedule and yet integrating positive changes can be applied to our ministry at our facilities as well. I believe that during this time, we are all making great efforts to reach out to those we serve, perhaps through mailings, calls to the units where that is possible, videos, live streams, newsletters, seeing people in courtyards or yards where and when possible, walking tiers where possible, etc. Maybe we have sent out a copied letter or in other instances personal notes or encouragement, or perhaps we have sent favorite devotionals or reading materials to persons in lock down. Perhaps we have made we have made special efforts to recall specific individuals and their needs and problems in our daily prayers.
In reality, even under “normal” circumstances, we are often already limited in our ministry and outreach due to some type of lockdown or circumstances. There are always many who would like to come who aren’t able to for one reason or another (institutional issues or their own politics), and then there are the many that choose not to come even if they had the opportunity. Hopefully we always considered it part of our pastoral duties to advocate for and serve those who wanted to come but could not. So, in other words to not sit back and say “well they didn’t come, or they weren’t allowed to come… what can I do?”. If we just did that, we all know that we could spend a lot of time in the office, without much opposition from the institution. So just as we have not accepted the virus lockdowns as a break, and we have look for ways to reach our people, we know that’s actually part of what we always do, and hopefully we learned some new and creative ways to do that.
And beyond advocating for those who want to come, hopefully we also considered it just as much a part of our call and duty to serve those who choose not to come, or who are in special housing areas, rather than just believing that we are only there for those who respond or who are able to respond. Someone once said “they acted up and got themselves in trouble, let them come when they get out of trouble”. But is that pastoral? Might not that be when outreach, support and presence is needed the most? And it’s not just about church services, what about groups, or pastoral visits to the infirmary and lock down areas. I once heard someone say that he would go to the SHU and have the officers announce that he was there and ask who wanted to see the chaplain. There would be no response and he would leave. He would then comment how those in high security did not want anything to do with chaplains, religion, etc. I think we all know that’s not how it works. If right now we are being creative and doing whatever we can to connect and minister, then we can continue to do the same with those who can’t or won’t come.
It can sometimes take a lot to set up services, groups or regular visits to more isolated populations, such as the SHU, infirmary, mental health areas, or other lock down areas. Maybe there is more paperwork, more resistance to the new movements and activities, more things to carry, more walking, and of course the reality that the more we go, and the more we follow up, the more need we will discover, more requests to fill, more follow up in turn, etc. It definitely would involve more listening than preaching or educating, and more conversation about where people are at in their journeys and what on their mind.
But in the end, this is a big part of our call. The analogy of not doing it would be the parish, temple, mosque or ceremony that would just focus on those who show up at the main services and not do any type of outreach… no outside promotion, no Bible Studies or groups at nontraditional days and hours, no home visits or visits to the sick, no youth outreach, no detention ministry, no street ministry, no homeless ministry, no attempt to serve or witness to others in the area, etc. -- just services and groups at convenient times for those who show up.
And our outreach shouldn’t be just to those who could not come or to those won’t or can’t come to us, but even beyond that, to those who reject and even dislike us. Often that rejection has nothing to do with us personally but rather at other historical realities or personal experiences with their families or faith communities. So we should not just accept and anticipate it, and then avoid it. I think if we can understand it and bear it, then allowing for slights, questioning, silence, disinterest, expression of hurtful experiences from people of faith, etc. might even eventually open a door over time (once consistent and selfless presence, respect, openness, willingness to listen and talk about what they want to talk about, and ultimately trust has been established). It doesn’t always lead to a breakthrough or big connection, but generally there is respect, and we still are able to witness through our presence.
So, as we look forward to someday getting back to normal, let us also be determined to integrate some of the positive insights and adaptations we had made in serving our people during the circumstances of the virus, especially when it comes to reaching those who can’t or won’t come to us. Hopefully we will continue to reach out to everyone in creative and new ways and in any way that we can.
Certainly, the mailings and technology are great. But perhaps what has been lacking teaches us and reminds us of what is most important and effective in our ministry to these populations and areas, which is loving presence and authentic listening. Just as people have learned the importance of just checking in, just chatting, making sure you are alright, and missing the face to face contact, so also helpfully we have come to understand and appreciate the power of that in our ministry, to be able to check in with people, just be present to them.
Finally, I would say that when we do this, we will be in greater awareness of the people we serve, their stories and experiences and their true needs, and we can respond in turn. And we might truly recognize, demonstrate, reflect, and promote that their lives matter.
Peace and Good Health to you, your friends and family, and to those you serve during this time.
Steven Gomez, Catholic Chaplain
Patton State Hospital