“Unclean, unclean!” Lepers had to scream when they saw someone healthy coming near to them. The best way against leprosy in Jesus’ day was to isolate them from society and let them die alone, far from their families.
Lepers did not receive health care or spiritual care, since the priests couldn’t go near them. Nor could they go to the temple.
Downside of isolation
Every society has dealt with their pandemics and their diseases in different ways.
COVID-19 patients are not that far from what happened with lepers long ago. When the virus is detected, they must isolate themselves from their families, friends, and worship centers. Their pastors do not come to them for fear of being infected.
But is that the right response? James writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). We might say, “Hey! James, you’re right, but let’s exclude lepers and COVID-19 patients because our elders might get sick.”
For those who are at home with no complications other than the symptoms of a bad cold, that sounds good because isolation will last only two weeks. But for those in hospitals or nursing homes, it’s different. They are isolated much longer, away from their churches and families. Many of them die slowly, the breath of life that God gave them no longer reaching their lungs or oxygenating their bodies.
It is there that the hospital chaplains play a critical role, because in addition to being elders of the universal church of Christ, we are a spiritual family to these patients. Chaplains are the closest thing to family that they can have at that moment.
Not all chaplains are comfortable visiting COVID-19 patients, as many are elderly and have their own medical complications. They are in the vulnerable group.
Before COVID-19, interaction with patients was more open and closer, since there was small risk of contagion. Sure, there are always some infectious diseases that need a certain level of protection. But COVID-19 took me by surprise because it was something unknown. Contact was limited, and to be frank, I was a little bit anxious every time I visited with a COVID-19 patient.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have ministered to hundreds of COVID-19 patients and seen many of them die. I was their only “family” present in most cases. I saw their lives fly away and was shocked to see their health deteriorate so quickly. They arrived to the hospital one day, were in worse condition the next day, and intubated a few days later. Then they died.
I sang “Amazing Grace” to comfort these patients. For many, the hymn was the last thing they heard:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see.
God is amazing because the body of Christ is bigger than our local congregations. In these situations with COVID, our religious and doctrinal differences are put aside, and Jesus’ last prayer to His heavenly Father for His disciples is most important: “That all of them may be one” (John 17:21).
Some call me Sabbatarian because I worship on Saturday instead of Sunday. A Sabbatarian was the only family present for these dying believers. Our amazing God does not stop teaching us that we manufacture all of our divisions by ourselves. His intention was always that we be one. In death we understand that.
When I was with a Lutheran patient, I was a Lutheran elder to them. When I was with a Presbyterian, I was a Presbyterian elder to them. When I was with a Catholic, I was a Catholic elder to them. When I was with a Baptist, I was a Baptist elder to them. And when I was with an atheist, I was a fellow human being who cared for them.
But I am not really a Sabbatarian or a Lutheran or a Presbyterian or a Catholic or a Baptist. I am a Christian, which is the truest identification for all of us who believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. And I’m a human being like you or any other person.
When I was in those hospital rooms as a Christian, part of the body of Christ, you who are believers were also there through me. The Lord Jesus Christ himself was present in the figure of a bearded Hispanic with a broken English accent — because we are all the one body of Christ.
In times of distress and pain, people of faith often turn to religious leaders to find answers and support. People of little faith also seek God in times of crisis, and people without religious beliefs cling to their own understandings.
In the midst of so much uncertainty we also find religious leaders who deny science and guide their followers against vaccines, masks, and social distancing. I respect them, but I don’t share their point of view. Our belief in God should not deter us from our reality as mortals. We are fragile and finite beings, subject to hunger, pain, and death. We are dust and we will return to dust.
God walks with us in our pilgrimage, but believers are like anyone else: We laugh and dream and hope; we cry, get sick, and die.
Ministering to so many as a chaplain during the pandemic has been especially important because worship gatherings at the Worthington and Sioux Falls congregations, where I pastor, were suspended. Not visiting the people who are an important part of my life was deeply difficult and sad. While some people were missing concerts, sports or parties, I was missing fellowship.
Being a faith leader in difficult times, and with so many opposing voices, is difficult. But I continue to see the amazing grace of God. Recently God blessed me with getting both of my vaccine doses on a Sabbath. This held special meaning to me because He has protected me through the valley of the shadow of death, bearing witness to the passing of hundreds. In life and in death, God is amazing!
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.