HEROES ON THE FRONT LINES OF OUR SYNOD
In order to honor the inspiring individuals on the front lines of our synod, we are highlighting “essential” members of our congregations who are putting their lives on the line during this global pandemic. Throughout various ministries of our synod, faith-filled individuals have been risking their lives by generously helping others. These are their stories.
We thank you for your steadfast love and care of others.
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Alex Lawrence, a member of Trinity Lower East Side, Manhattan and the Executive Director of Trinity’s Services and Food for the Homeless (SAFH).
Our soup kitchen and food pantry at Trinity Lower East Side has been around for over thirty years as a resource for the community, feeding people and helping them get through their month as they stretch a meager paycheck. We have always been there for those in need, and now is no different. What is astounding, though, is not only how many more people are in need of our services, but the large number of first timers coming to both our soup kitchen and food pantry. I have been the Executive Director for about six years, and though we always are receiving people for whom this aid is new, in the past couple of months this has increased greatly.
Individuals have been coming in having to request help who have never before had to seek aid or ask for help like this in their lives, and though it is disheartening to see their difficulty in life and hardship in this moment, once we embrace them in this community and show them that it really is okay, I feel what a blessing our paths crossing is. It is truly a blessing that as a faith organization we are able to be here for anyone who needs it, catch them in this difficult time, and act as a safety net for them.
Interestingly, SAFH has allowed me to forge relationships with people like never before, especially at a time when we are all starved for human connection. Currently, because we are limiting the number of people in our building, we haven’t been accepting a lot of volunteers during our service hours. Therefore, there is a need for more hands on deck, and although I normally primarily dealing with the financial and administrative aspects of the organization, I have been spending my time downstairs helping at our food pantry during this crisis. And, I must say, it has been wonderful in so many ways; it has allowed me to connect with individuals, even during this strange time of distancing. Now, one of my favorite moments of the day is going to help with the food pantry, because I am able to speak with everyone who comes in: I can greet them, ask them how they’re doing, and even just that “Hello,” and initial care allows them the ability to open up if they want to. In this way, we can all really be there for one another.
Just the other day I was speaking with a first-time food pantry visitor, and upon that opening “Hello, how are you?” he instantly started sharing so much. It was just incredible. He told me all about his work as a barber, that sadly he has been out of work, and in the end, he was so thankful for the food and the company, that he offered to come back and give everyone haircuts! There is such an encouraging sense of community that has grown and continues to grow in these trying times, and it has been amazing to celebrate that on a daily basis.
Deepening our connection with others, especially those in need, is truly God’s work, and we are so blessed to be able to do this. I feel that as an organization we have strengthened during this pandemic. The decreased staff, transition to a fully to-go system, increased demand, and influx of first timers has certainly tested us, but also forced us to reexamine what it’s like for someone who has never been to a food pantry before, figure out how we can best on-board them, and make sure we are efficiently and safely serving everyone who comes through our doors. Our team has worked together like never before, and although there is always that initial anxiety about going to work at the pantry and exposing yourself, I can honestly say that the benefits of what we are able to do and provide to people far outweigh any fear.
Nancy Schoener, a S. Dcn. of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Pleasantville, is a nurse who works with end-of-life patients at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.
I try to bring my ministry at Emanuel and from what I have learned there as a synod deacon to my work at the hospital, and that is why I was so pleased to be part of the Clinical Pastoral Education program. There I learned how to better take care of people, not just physically, but in mind, body and spirit. I am able to bring my ministry here to work daily, which is very special for me. Here at Calvary, I am a director of infection control and employee health, as well as one of the directors in the nursing department. So, I see employees and patients all the time, but what is special is that I can also pray with people. Blending both of these ministries is extremely rewarding to me, especially when I see the comforting impact it has on those I care for. When I see patients, I may be doing any number of things for them physically, but I can also connect with them on a spiritual level, and we do that a lot. It’s really a blessing, to me, to be able to offer that exchange; it helps me as a person, and it assists me in my spiritual growth.
It is such a difficult time here for staff members and for patients, and it is made only harder by the fact that we don’t have any visitors. We usually have 24-hour visiting, but in the midst of this pandemic, we can’t allow anyone to visit unless the patient is imminently dying. Therefore, the staff here has been wonderful about arranging video chats with families, among other efforts, and we all try to connect with the patients, especially since they don’t have any family or friends visiting them to offer them that closeness they are yearning for. The other evening, after I had finished physically doing what I needed to do for one of my patients, we began chatting and he was talking about God, the strength and existence of a higher power, and how this is out of our control. We had a beautiful conversation about faith, and at the end, I just asked, “Before I leave, can I pray with you?” And he delightedly said, “Sure!” So, we exchanged each others’ names again, I took his hands, and I was able to pray for him. Then, just as I was finishing my prayer for him, he just chimed in and said a prayer for me. I can’t even explain what a wonderful feeling this was, because he really did make it personal for me, and I felt how much these patients give back in the way of care, love and appreciation. It is inspiring—empathy truly evokes further empathy, and love inspires love. This reciprocal cycle of care has existed during my entire ministry here, and has only strengthened during this pandemic.
We have had a lot of COVID patients here, and since we usually do palliative-type care here, we don’t have vents and we don’t have patients on respirators, so the COVID patients we receive are those who have been on vents and are then transferred here. We have two COVID units, and I have been in both of these throughout this crisis. Both patients and staff are in need right now, especially as staff work tirelessly to care for those who require it most. We sadly lost a staff member to the virus, and two others lost their husbands. It is very difficult for patients, for staff, and for families. We are lucky to have wonderful pastoral care and social work departments, which is very helpful. It is amazing to see how people have been coming together to do whatever they can, for the families and for each other. It’s been a tough journey, but a beautiful one in some ways.
God always finds a way to show us some beauty, even in the midst of sadness—where a door closes, a window opens. I feel blessed to have the opportunity do the work that I do; it continues to impact my life in the best way possible.
Chris Kasler, a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bay Ridge, is a funeral director in Brooklyn.
Burying the dead is certainly essential; someone has to bury the dead. Our Lord Jesus Christ was entombed because someone took care of him. This is something that people can’t do for themselves; therefore, they have to rely on somebody else for the preparations, for the burial and for advice. This pandemic has made this sensitive process incomparably difficult on so many levels. Nothing can truly prepare you for something like this. We saw other countries ahead of us, so we kind of had an idea, but trying to fully discern what you really needed to be prepared for was virtually impossible. During the height of the crisis in New York, there were remains coming into the chapel faster than we had places to put them, and now we are in the midst of a “catch-up” period, as crematoriums haven’t been able to cremate, so there is a waiting list. It never really stops, and it’s heartbreaking, because this is death we are talking about.
Personally, I think the most traumatic experience I had, after being a funeral director for thirty-five years, was actually telling somebody on the phone that I couldn’t help them. I had the relief of being able to offer someone else that could, but I like to be hands-on, myself, when it comes to things. I am very particular about how things are done. We are here to help people, bury their loved ones, give them time to grieve and offer them advice, so when any part of this process is not possible, it is distressing. Of course, I don’t want people to contact me just for the business. If they are using another funeral director, I am always more than happy to give them advice and point them in the right direction, which is what happened during the coronavirus crisis—family members were calling, people were calling, pastors were calling, as funeral homes were turning them down. Believe me, we were overwhelmed as well, so we were able to make referrals to people in this industry that I trust, in order to help so many families out.
Sadly though, because of the volume and the way in which bodies had to be handled, we had very little time to give to each family, and this is difficult. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and this was the right way to do the wrong thing. It’s not what people are used to. It’s very hard to not get that time to grieve the way you want to. Some people don’t have the necessity to grieve, some are not of faith and just want that process taken care of, and then there are those that need the time and the structure of the funeral, and this is one situation where that cannot be offered to people, and that made it a very difficult job to do. I remember when my mother and father died, I had to handle their funerals on behalf of my family. I was so busy working and making arrangements and coordinating things that I really didn’t have the time to grieve, the right way. But it’s something that we just plow through and somehow, we manage.
This is a very difficult time for our country. This is a very difficult time for our churches and for our faith. If anything good came out of it, it would be that families were brought back together, almost in a forcible manner, indescribable by nature—God works in mysterious ways. They say time heals all wounds: the wounds don’t go away, but you learn how to adjust and continue, but it doesn’t change the loss. Jesus hung on the cross over two thousand years ago, and we still talk about it today, so we are still in that phase of adjustment, through generations. As we progress and awaken to different things, I guess there will be some type of closure. What is that, though? Maybe it’s our own deaths; we don’t know for sure what that closure is, but we still have faith that something more is coming.
NA WU FEUCHT
Na Wu Feucht, a member of Advent Lutheran Church, is the Food Pantry Director and a Volunteer Coordinator at Trinity’s Services and Food for the Homeless (SAFH) in Manhattan.
Before this pandemic started, each day we served over 150 to 200 individuals at lunch, and in the afternoon the food pantry would serve over 35 families, but after New York shut down in March, each day the number of people served at lunch went up to at least 280, and the food pantry increased to over 45 families. Interestingly, about 30 percent of the people that require our service are first timers. This is the first time they have ever needed to come to the church to pick up food. I feel this service is essential not only because we are providing necessary food to hungry New Yorkers, but also because everyone volunteering is doing this as a labor of love—we offer people care and tenderness each day.
What is particularly essential and helpful is that we protect the dignity of those in need of our services. The coronavirus crisis makes no race or occupation distinctions; so many are being hit hard and are in need of assistance. Each day I meet students and artists, people from the Korea, Japan and Russia, letting me know they have never needed or been to a service like this before and don’t know what to do. So, we guide them through the very simple steps and let them know it is ok. They are so appreciative for the food and for the care.
This crisis and being a part of this project has really shown me the generosity and compassion of people; it fills me with such appreciation and motivates me. For example, in the beginning we were very short on masks, so a former volunteer and a volunteer’s mom designed and hand-sewed washable masks for each of us food service and food pantry workers. Additionally, members come to help us prepare food in the mornings and an email recently came from a former volunteer and New York Care team leader offering her own help and care for those working at Trinity right now. This letter and these actions are so encouraging to all of the staff to continue doing this important work to feed people, because there are those who are taking care of us too, and the chain of care continues on and on. Loving one another is, after all, God’s way, and also the way in which we will all get through this together.
I feel I am so blessed to have this opportunity to participate in this food service program and to be a help and a witness in this uncertain time.