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Asking the Clergy: Ministering in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities

From left, the Rev. Paul Downing of St.

From left, the Rev. Paul Downing of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Vicky L. Eastland of Brookville Reformed Church, and Rabbi Uri Lesser of Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Credit: Rev. Paul Downing; Raju A. Eastland; Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center

Social distancing and other measures that attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19 have been especially difficult for residents of Long Island's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. This week’s clergy discuss how they reach out to those who have been deprived of such comforts as family visits and in-person pastoral care.

The Rev. Paul Downing

Pastor, St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Port Jefferson Station

This question is tough considering that COVID-19 has hit nursing home and care facilities particularly hard. Where normally we have regular pastoral care visits to bring Communion, prayer and company to congregants, many facilities no longer allow visitation. Front-line staff cannot be thanked enough, not only for their own care for residents but for respecting and facilitating faith ministry, too. Many go the extra mile as we improvise ways to reach congregants, from simply holding up a phone to someone's ear to setting someone up to attend virtual church.

One congregant, nearing the end of life but still in a facility not allowing visitors, had family gather outside a first-floor window. Staff positioned them to see while cellphones served as intercoms. I was asked to lead a prayer service there on the grass. We read Scripture and sang hymns, using masks and safe distancing.

We are grateful for the technology enabling us to connect in creative ways, while still keeping congregants safe. But most of all we are thankful for the love that is shared so freely and so wonderfully in tough times, as helping professions help one another to advance health and wholeness.

Rabbi Uri Lesser

Director of Pastoral Care, Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Commack

Before COVID-19, it was easy for our residents at Gurwin to find me when they needed spiritual guidance or care. We were connected by multiple weekly services and classes, and I saw most residents at least briefly as I walked the halls throughout the week. I knew that those who needed a visit, regardless of their faith, could find me.

After the pandemic hit, visits stopped and residents were quarantined; this meant no more weekly services, no more classes and no more walking the halls. How to reach everyone? We immediately started taping a weekly Oneg Shabbat service, making that and Catholic Mass available for residents to enjoy, but that certainly wasn’t enough. Our residents wanted more, and not just those who regularly attended services.

Residents needed to talk, but they couldn’t come looking for me; I had to find them. I am now focused on finding the people with whom I might not be so familiar, yet who are yearning for a spiritual connection. This helps them, but it has also changed the way I see my role. I’ve learned many things, but this may be the greatest: Don’t wait for someone to find you, find them first.

The Rev. Vicky L. Eastland

Pastor, Brookville Reformed Church

On March 12, I flew to Missouri to be with my mother, who was having surgery. The plan was to spend 10 days with her, but the day after I arrived, her senior-living facility went on lockdown, and I was shut in with the residents for the next six weeks! The activities director jokingly asked me if I had any talents because they were not allowing people who came regularly to entertain the residents to come into the facility.

I laughed at first, but then realized I did have something to offer. I began leading worship services twice a week as well as providing pastoral counseling and prayer to the residents.

I was also leading Zoom worship for my church back on Long Island, along with making phone calls to parishioners who were in nursing facilities and shut in because of the pandemic. I updated our prayer chain almost daily with the ongoing needs of our faith community, which included a congregant who died of COVID-19 in a nursing home and another who tested positive in a different facility.

As the pandemic continues, a phone call and prayer can feel like a lifeline to those in nursing homes.

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