Learning from chaplains as we respond to the coronavirus

By BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr.

“This is not something that any of us really expected to see in our lifetimes.”

When I heard these words about COVID-19 from hospital chaplain Jo Hirschmann on the radio, they struck me in a deeply personal way. Like Rabbi Hirschmann, I used to work in health care chaplaincy. I provided spiritual and emotional support to those in hospital and hospice facilities, and I had the privilege of ministering to patients, families and health care workers as they faced personal, professional and existential crises.

Today, health care chaplains, along with doctors, nurses and grocery store workers, are on the front lines of our response to COVID-19. These chaplains, representing all faiths and none (yes, there are secular humanist chaplains), are working and ministering to their neighbors in a time like no other. They are traversing uncertain ground, seeking to provide care and comfort to religiously diverse populations in health care facilities around the world.

My work at BJC is focused on ensuring religious liberty for all people and educating the next generation, but I’ve never forgotten my time as a chaplain. As religious organizations seek new paths forward in this uncertain era, I believe that people of all faiths and none are called to be chaplains to one another.

So, what can diverse religious organizations and houses of worship learn from chaplains as we face this strange new world together? I believe there are three lessons that chaplaincy can offer to our collective response to COVID-19:

We must prioritize safety and work with experts to ensure public health.

Health care chaplains are required to follow their facilities’ best practices and safety guidelines. This ensures the health of their patients and fellow workers. By following these guidelines, chaplains can provide comfort and spiritual care while also protecting their communities. In my experience, patients and many of the health care workers would follow my actions. Patients’ family members looked to me for leadership and comfort. Just as in the health care facilities, our houses of worship should consider our actions because people outside are looking to and for our guidance as well.

Religious groups and houses of worship also have made changes to protect the health of congregants and community members. Many moved to virtual services, an adjustment which I applaud. At BJC, we are urging houses of worship to comply with restrictions on social gatherings to protect their communities. Although a few outliers have gained attention for resisting guidelines on limiting gatherings, many more religious groups have made the right decision, cooperating with public health recommendations and canceling in-person services.

We should recognize that adjusting to new circumstances is both necessary and difficult.

Adjusting religious gatherings to ensure safety is not easy. Chaplains often have to make hard decisions about how to protect patients’ health while being a supportive presence. In the age of COVID-19, many chaplains have had to wear more protective gear or offer care at a physical or virtual distance. This is especially difficult for chaplains who are used to being a physical presence of support for patients, family members and staff.

Likewise, physical distancing is not easy for houses of worship. Some religious rituals cannot be carried out online. As someone from a small church in a “four-stoplight” town, I also know that not every community has the privilege of internet access or the technological know-how to move services online. The transition away from in-person gatherings, while urgent, will involve real loss for religious communities. We must attend to that loss collectively, recognizing the grief that comes with these necessary adjustments.

Religious organizations and houses of worship are working in this moment to be chaplains to one another as we plan a just and compassionate response to COVID-19. It is my hope that we can take some lessons from the health care chaplains who serve those most in need. Like these servant leaders, may we place care, compassion and concern at the heart of our work to ensure faith freedom for all.

It’s important to be attentive to religious privilege and work as a team.

Chaplaincy is a religiously diverse profession, with chaplains of all faiths and none ministering to patients and health care workers from diverse spiritual backgrounds. As a chaplain, I learned how to work with those whose beliefs and spiritual needs were different from my own. I also learned how to navigate complicated interfaith relationships. In many ways, this experience equipped me to do the religious freedom work and interfaith bridge-building that is at the core of BJC.

As the United States decides how to best respond to COVID-19, difficult conversations about religious liberty have already come up. The CARES Act, recently passed into law, provides funding relief for nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship. As my colleague Holly Hollman points out, this is a complicated provision, and houses of worship should be careful about the “unintended practical problems” that accepting government money could bring up, including the potential of increased government oversight.

Beyond legal questions of religious liberty and church-state separation, I believe that religious groups must also consider the moral implications of our actions at this pivotal time in our history. Our health care and essential workers are providing for us as best they can. When we look back at this time in our history, as a religious community we want to make sure we did what was best not just for us, but all our neighbors. Even if that means the most faithful action — the one that will protect the health and safety of our community — is keeping our physical distance.

Charles Watson Jr. is the director of education at BJC. For more, watch a recording of the recent webinar “‘You Mean I Can’t What?’ Religious Freedom in Difficult Times,” featuring Watson as one of the panelists.

Our mission is to defend and extend #FaithFreedomForAll. BJConline.org

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