Parish and senior ministry during a pandemic
Editor’s note: Sister Carole Kimes ministers as the director of pastoral care, including a special ministry for senior citizens, with St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Carmel, Indiana. Here she shares some of what her ministry has entailed over the past year.
The face of my ministry this year has changed significantly. Isolation and loneliness were two companions that accompanied the stay-at-home order. So I would make phone calls with a list that was generated at the parish of those 65 and older. I invited a few other parishioners to help with doing the outreach calls. We had a list of about 1,000 parishioners who fit into that category. So phone ministry was a key focus early on in the pandemic. We also paired volunteers to do some grocery shopping for seniors who had no one else to do it for them.
The parish’s consolation ministry clearly increased due to those who lost their lives (many to COVID-19 or COVID-related). So our bereavement ministry continued but it needed to look different because of the social distancing, wearing masks, etc. The need for touch or a hug and seeing one another’s faces was snatched from those who were grieving. Outreach was again done via phone, snail mail and Zoom.
In December, I host a “We Remember Service” which is a time for the families of parishioners who have died in the past year. We gather for prayer, a slideshow memorial, sharing and input from Sister Connie Kramer, SP, on “Mourning during the holidays” and usually a breakfast. Two weeks before the event was scheduled, we had to shift to a virtual gathering. While not being able to share the gift of presence in person, this did allow family members at a distance to attend. The need for hugs has never been so highlighted as during this time of the pandemic.
Connecting our seniors
In May I was asked to write a grant for our Silver Linings seniors ministry. We received word in October that we were awarded the grant. The grant has shifted some of my ministry focus in ways least expected. We have purchased tablets and continue to put them in the hands of seniors in need. The tablets allow the seniors to livestream Mass daily and to Zoom and Skype to help them stay connected to family, friends and the parish.
Of course, securing the tablets was only part of the grant. The other part was setting them up and then taking them to the home or facility and teaching the parishioner how to use it. This endeavor has allowed those in continuum care places to connect with family and to participate in church events especially with the lockdowns in our congregate living situations. One big event was a virtual retreat for those in the second half of life. So those who had the tablets could join the community for the four-day retreat which Sister Connie Kramer directed for us. We invited St. Joseph Retreat Center to also promote the retreat so it reached many beyond our local area. We scheduled it for mid-January — post holiday season — as the winter blues were even more challenging this year. It benefited many seniors even beyond Indiana.
Respite blessing meals
Another great gift of love offered, thanks to the grant, is meal delivery for seniors who find themselves isolated, in a caregiver role or just needing some respite in the midst of grief. We have a group of volunteers who shop, cook and package the meals, which ends up being more than 80 meals a month. We also have another group of volunteers who deliver the meals to the recipients. Meals are dropped off on the front porch and then the recipient is called to let them know it has arrived. Seniors trapped in their homes for so many months, tired from providing meals seven days a week, three meals a day for a loved one also needed some tender loving care.
The meals have proven to be a Eucharistic action. One recipient hadn’t had home cooked meals in years. Wheelchair bound and unable to use a stove or oven safely limited his cooking, so his meals had largely consisted of microwavable frozen meals. Now he gets a home cooked meal twice a month and gets to visit with the parishioner who delivers it. Another parishioner tried sneaking out of the house to pick up meals for herself and her spouse. In their 90s it takes more energy to engage in daily activities. Her son did not want them leaving the house for fear of contracting the virus. There are lots more stories but these are just a couple. Both the volunteers and those receiving the meals are finding this to be a source of joy, purpose and love.
Caring for each other
I would be remiss in not mentioning perhaps one of the greatest encounters of Providence. One of our Providence Associates contacted me and wanted to donate her stimulus check to someone in need. One of our families, a single parent with children, was in need of purchasing eyeglasses for one of her children. This gift allowed her to provide a medical need for her child. Providence seems to always show up at the right time.
As things open up a little more, I meet people one-on-one. Wearing a mask seems to be a barrier in so many ways and at the same time it is a great way to protect one another. Many opt for Zoom meetings just so we can see each other’s face. We discuss such topics as grief, spiritual companioning, family issues, concerns for the world, forgiveness, relationships and more. To be the face of God’s mercy for others is humbling. And our discussion is freeing for those who have carried a burden for too long.
A safe place in the face of injustice
With all the awareness of racial injustice, there has been plenty of opportunity to engage in conversation and ongoing learning about systemic racism. At this point in time, it seems the best way is to engage one-on-one in my ministry. And I become more and more aware that I am a safe place for people to come and share their pain of injustices they have experienced or witnessed in our world — and yes, even in our church. It is being in the right place at the right time for the right reason and that is all in the hands of Providence.