ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. has now reached another devastating milestone - 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. With a death toll that high, we are checking in with some of the people who have borne heavy burdens during the pandemic. Among them are the faith leaders who minister to the sick and console those who are grieving. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been speaking to some of them.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: This pandemic has affected the whole country, but some places have been hit especially hard by COVID, like the Elmhurst area of Queens in New York.
PATRICK YOUNG: Three I lost, like, back to back and then five others spaced throughout the year.
GJELTEN: Pastor Patrick Young of First Baptist Church in Elmhurst has stayed in close touch with his congregants.
YOUNG: I had eight contract COVID, and they survived. Thank God they survived. But eight went on. Eight passed.
GJELTEN: That's out of a congregation of a little more than 300. Faith leaders like Young don't provide medical care, but they've been very much on the frontline during this pandemic. And like health care workers, they've been stressed by the death and suffering they have seen.
JASON WEINER: There is secondary trauma, post-traumatic stress, however you want to call it.
GJELTEN: Rabbi Jason Weiner is chief of spiritual care at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
WEINER: There's grief, and it gets worse and worse. And you feel it, and it's painful. Sometimes, you could just be sitting at home, and you hear a siren or something that could be a trigger. And it's definitely severe.
PAULA TERESE PILON: It's just very difficult to watch people suffer like this.
GJELTEN: Sister Paula Terese Pilon is a chaplain at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. She provides hospice care, but her ministry is not so much with those who are dying from COVID as with their family members. And it's been hard.
PILON: There's the cumulative grief that I suffer as a pastoral care person from hearing story after story. Some of my family members who I've talked with have lost both of their parents because of COVID. There's the question of, did I give them COVID? Why can't I see them when they're dying?
GJELTEN: Just as medical workers have struggled to treat a virus they had never seen before, these faith leaders have had to figure out how to provide pastoral care in this new situation where close personal contact is dangerous. At First Baptist in Elmhurst, Pastor Young hasn't been able to see people in church or in their homes, but he's now hosting a weekly conference call for all his members.
YOUNG: I have a segment, Faith through the Pandemic. And it's an opportunity for the people of our congregation to talk about what they went through and deal with the emotional pain and challenges. They've been phenomenal.
GJELTEN: There are also the new responsibilities for those who care for the spiritual caregivers. As the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, the Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows oversees about 150 clergy, most of whom have to provide a kind of pastoral care unlike what they were trained for.
JENNIFER BASKERVILLE-BURROWS: You know, who am I as a priest, as a minister, if I can't do those things that are bedrock - showing up in person, laying hands, anointing with oil?
GJELTEN: She says much of her work these days involves just checking in on her clergy.
BASKERVILLE-BURROWS: Lots of conversations about, well, what does it mean to be a minister or a priest in this time when those bedrock things, foundational things are not available to us? So as bishop, I want to make sure they're doing OK and have some supports they need in a very difficult time.
GJELTEN: All these faith leaders are being asked hard questions like, why is God doing this to us? Sister Paula Terese says they are questions that can't necessarily be answered.
PILON: So much of life is a mystery. So much of what is happening in people's lives is a mystery. And sometimes, there aren't words. There just aren't words. However, being present with somebody says a lot.
GJELTEN: It's a ministry of presence practiced intensely over this year of COVID.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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