Salvation Army’s Canadian Chaplains Caring Through COVID-19

AS a Christian movement, spiritual care is central to the mission of The Salvation Army. Chaplains can offer a quiet presence and active listening, as well as empathy, encouragement, prayer and other faith-related rites and practices. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, four Salvation Army chaplains from a variety of contexts across Canada share how they are coming alongside others and how their work has been changing.

Palliative Care

Major Marie Hollett is the director of the spiritual and religious care programme at The Salvation Army’s Toronto Grace Health Centre (TGHC), and chaplain on the palliative care unit. Spiritual care is fundamental to TGHC’s commitment to holistic care. Spiritual care reflects care of the whole person – spirit, mind and body. In times of illness and crisis, an individual’s sense of meaning, purpose and worth can be challenged.

The major explains: ‘In order to try and contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, one of the directives of the Ontario government was to cease all visitors to hospitals, granting only exceptional circumstances. It has been a difficult time for both patients and their families. To help support the patients and families, the chaplains have been helping with Zoom meetings and telephone calls between them. The families are so appreciative of this service. On the palliative care unit, when a patient is actively dying, family members are permitted to visit, but need to wear personal protective equipment (masks and gowns). As chaplains, we keep in touch with families through telephone calls. After the patient passes away, I make a telephone call to the family and send a bereavement card.

‘Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were volunteers who faithfully visited patients, played music and brought patients to recreation therapy and to chapels. We had church groups come and lead denominational services, ministry of singing on our units and a eucharist minister who came weekly to give communion to those who wished to receive it, and a priest came when needed. During this unprecedented time, chaplains have set up Zoom calls when patients want to speak to a chaplain or a clergy from their denomination.

‘Before the pandemic, we frequently hosted events called Tea for the Soul – tea and coffee, treats and fellowship for patients and families. Chaplains are looking forward to doing this again.

‘Part of the chaplain’s ministry is to support our staff. The chaplains usually support staff face to face, however, during this unprecedented time, it is important to support staff who are working from home or who are working on the COVID unit. Going to the COVID unit and other floors increases the risk of spreading the virus to other members of the interprofessional team. I have been sending encouraging emails to all staff, reminding them of the importance of their work and how much they are appreciated.

‘As for patients and families, we also do Tea for the Soul for staff. On special occasions such as Easter, we bring treats to each unit and speak with the nurses. On the COVID unit, we left treats with a note enclosed by the unit’s doorway, to be picked up by a nurse. This ensures that the floor is well cared for. It is always a blessing to be able to do this and the chaplains were glad that it could be done creatively – a nice basket of chocolate and a note go a long way.

‘As a chaplain, my ministry is person to person, and that hasn’t changed for me on my unit. What has changed is not visiting any patients or staff on the COVID unit to ensure staff and patient safety. This is only temporary during this pandemic. What has also changed is the need for a face shield and a surgical mask. It is not easy to communicate clearly through the shield, especially with seniors who are hard of hearing, but it is necessary in order to keep everyone safe. I am thankful I can continue my ministry with appropriate innovative process.

‘As a chaplain during these challenging times, I have become more aware of the importance of engagement at a patient’s bedside in order to support, listen to their concerns, assist them with music and meeting their needs emotionally and spiritually. I have also become more aware of the importance of letting patients and families know that when anyone comes into the Grace, they became a part of the Grace family – we are there to support in any way we can, and we do this every day. For some, it might be clothing and toiletries, for others it might be emotional and/or spiritual support, but whatever it may be, I will do my best to help.’

Learning Disabilities

Major Shelly Rands is a chaplain at The Salvation Army’s Community Venture in Winnipeg, where adults with intellectual disabilities are supported to reach their potential through outreach, residential services and day programming. ‘Sometimes they just need someone to listen and I get to be that person,’ says the major.

The most important lesson she has learned during the pandemic is that ‘we can all learn from each other and share in the journey of grace. Life is way too short not to have fun, laugh, enjoy life and love one another. I love being with people and learning from them. They have taught me that laughter is good medicine!

‘I have come to realise that our members deal with the same issues that we all deal with every day. We talk about the news and weather a lot, as they are very interested in what is going on around us. We study current events and sometimes we look up what is happening in the news. We also chat about life and health quite a bit. They share their thoughts and dreams and love to tell me a joke or two sometimes! It is a joy to know that they trust me to share in their life’s journey.’

Her biggest challenge? ‘I would have to say learning to be patient. To wait and listen and hear what the person wants to share, when they are ready to share it. We live in such a busy world that teaches us to rush and hurry, and I have had to learn to slow down and wait. It has taken time, but it is so rewarding. I never know what they will share with me. They teach me so many interesting things – from history to what they want for their birthday! Sometimes they just need someone to listen and I get to be that person.

‘A typical day for me is visiting one of our many locations to spend time with the members and “be present”, to listen to what they want to share with me. I participate in the programmes they attend and the work they do. I also oversee the choir every week, which is led by the parents of two of our members, and lead chapel once a month. I am on call when a member or staff person requests to speak to the chaplain and that keeps me very busy.

‘I have experimented with different ways to do chapel – sometimes as a Zoom call, sometimes by posting a video on YouTube. For choir, we have sent out a list of songs with links to videos for members to practise at home. I make phone calls when members and staff request to speak to me. And I’ve written each member a personal card to let them know I’m thinking about and praying for them.

Marginalised Young People

Matthew Dredge is a chaplain at The Salvation Army’s Sutton Youth Services in Ontario, which offers an emergency shelter, transitional housing and a drop-in programme for marginalised and homeless youth.

‘Each day, I ask the Holy Spirit to give me a soft heart and compassion for the people I encounter,’ he says, reflecting on the challenges faced by the young people who attend Sutton Youth Services.

‘The youth we are dealing with have such a wide range of struggles, from anger, abandonment and self-esteem issues to mental health challenges; from family problems to legal concerns. Sometimes it’s only one, but often they are dealing with three or four of these things, plus the added stress of experiencing homelessness, many for the first time.

‘They often think they can solve their own problems, and don’t want to show weakness. But when you get past that, they will weep, expressing self-loathing for the mistakes they have made. It’s in these times that I have the chance to speak words of truth and hope into their lives – words that tell them of God’s love for them, that nothing they have done or that has been done to them changes that love, that God has a good plan for them. It’s often on trips to appointments or to court that these conversations happen, and I have the privilege to walk alongside them for a time.

‘Sometimes it seems there is little to no change in the lives of the people I serve, that for every step forward they take two backwards. Discouragement is a struggle at times. However, whenever I start feeling this way, God shows me a glimpse of growth, of his image shining through for a moment. That is enough to keep me going, to be faithful to the calling of walking beside people and demonstrating God’s love for them and that there really is no difference between me and the people I encounter.

‘We are all created in God’s image and God desires that we all come to him and know life. At times, I have seen a deeper expression of community in shelters than I have in the church – they accept people in whatever state they are in, no matter the struggles. Sometimes they will share with one another, even if it means going without themselves. A good example to me.’

Matthew admits that staying healthy as he cares for other people can be the most difficult part of ministry. ‘There is suffering and pain every day, stories that break the heart and bring tears to the eyes. It’s so important to rely on Jesus for strength for the work he has given me, but I also need to be self-aware: when these stories are not breaking my heart, perhaps it’s time to take some time off.

‘My wife, Bible study group and the elders of the board I serve on are all supportive and hold me up in prayer. Each day, I ask the Holy Spirit to give me a soft heart and compassion for the people I encounter.

‘I’ve tried to maintain relationship-building through phone, text and social media, to gauge how people are doing and support them with prayer. As we have been limiting the number of people in the shelter, I have primarily been working from home, but trying to stay connected with staff and encourage them through phone calls and email. I’ve also gone grocery shopping for some clients and taken a few to appointments – with physical distancing measures in place. It has taken some getting used to and I wish I could be of more support to people, but I’m so thankful for all who are doing their best to keep our clients and each other safe.

Addictions and Rehabilitation

Karla Rudram is a chaplain at The Salvation Army’s Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre (ARC) in Victoria. ‘Our job here is to help guys reconnect with what gives them hope and peace,’ she says.

‘At the beginning of March, when we were asked to “socially distance” and “flatten the curve”, we were a bit anxious. So many of the men in our care have compromised health and many are older. I was nervous about bringing the virus into work. I was nervous about bringing the virus home from work.

‘We changed our operations by adding a handwashing station in the lobby (complete with song lyrics to make it a 20-second handwash) and stopped taking new residents. About half of the management team and staff were asked to work from home and volunteers were asked to stop coming in. I started serving all our community meals.

‘In May, we were down to about half our normal numbers of residents but were relieved to not have had a case of COVID-19 in our building. We are beginning to talk about opening up more again, and staff coming back. It will be a slow process, but a good one. I am excited to see all my co-workers again and feel a bit more normalcy. The emotional and spiritual toll this thing has taken is not yet fully seen.

‘Usually when guys talk about their struggles, they are removed from my own experience, but I felt, and continue to feel, that we are all in this together. During a time when we were asked to stay inside the safety of walls, the walls that separate us crumbled a bit.

‘There’s so much to learn from this time and I’m looking forward to the positive changes that we might see. I think we will be more grateful for the “mundane” parts of life. I think people will be more aware of the vulnerable around us – our beloved elders, people suffering from homelessness and those living in poverty will hopefully be more present in our thoughts. Hugs will mean so much more. Going to church will feel like even more of a spiritual gathering of God’s people. But we have a way to go and more to learn before we can say this thing is over.’

Karla reflects on some of the struggles that the men in the programme are facing.
‘Homelessness, addiction, criminal lifestyles, poverty and mental health issues are all part of our everyday life here at the ARC. The predominant question is “why me?” but there’s an awful lot of “how could anyone love me?” or “why should I expect any different?”

‘Trauma is the cause of most of it. That trauma was often, if not always, outside of their control and caused by people who were meant to care for and love them. Our job here is to help guys reconnect with what gives them hope and peace. It’s not my job to have all the answers to hard questions, but to give people a safe place to ask them – to sit with them, walk with them, ask the questions with them and pray with them when they are ready.

‘I also get to do fun things with the guys, too. We go on hikes or excursions twice a week in our skills for recovery programme, walking along trails in what I think is the most beautiful place in the world, and I have the immense privilege of carrying the stories of these strong yet vulnerable men who want more and are seeking it. At the end of the day, it is about being heard and cared for.

‘My job is to listen and care.’

Based on interviews conducted by Giselle Randall
for salvationist.ca, Canada and Bermuda Territory

 

 

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