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At Harvest New Beginnings Church in Oswego, Gary Adams is the Care Ministries Pastor.
He checks in on people who are facing an illness, like cancer. Or a loved one who has dementia. In many cases that means a personal visit, not just a phone call.
Right now, though, Harvest and other churches are coping with a cruel paradox of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Face-to-face contact with the older, most vulnerable population that might need it most is not possible – and against tightened hospital and senior facility regulations – in maintaining the recommended social distancing.
"It almost goes against the word care," said Beka Wyatt, the Office Manager at Harvest. "Care means hugging a wife when they're hurting, or holding a hand. The phone call doesn't mean the same. We would still be going to the hospitals, if we are allowed."
Through this time Harvest and other churches are doing their best to provide spiritual and material needs – and maintain a connection – with their many older church members.
At Harvest, they initiated a group of volunteers to call the 250 family units over the age of 65 once a week to ask about basic necessities – what groceries they need, if they need any meals prepared for them, if they need any prescriptions picked up. Harvest has three different forms on its website – "I need help," "I want to help," and "I want to give," where a coordinator matches up volunteers with people who need help.
"Someone says they ran out of toilet paper, or they can't afford to get to the store, we're matching them up," Wyatt said. "We have been doing that for almost three weeks now. With people who are vulnerable, who are at home, we've assigned them volunteers."
At St. Mark's Lutheran Church on the far west side of Aurora, which has many members of its congregation from Oswego and Yorkville, Pastor Patrick Fish said they needed to figure out in a matter of days an infrastructure to care for the home bound elderly or those in assisted living facilities that they no longer could have face-to-to-face contact with.
In response to the pandemic, St. Mark's introduced its "We Care" ministry to support the needs of its members.
The three-part ministry, which has 25 volunteers ministering to over 100 people, is a daily phone call to chat and socialize; prayer partners, for people who wish to be prayed for or with; and the third part is to pick up and drop off essential needs.
"We want to offer our services in a safe and responsible way," Fish said. "Because nobody can go and see these individuals as a pastor we really wanted to make sure they were getting multiple phone calls. People are really stepping up – teachers who are home, Gen Xers are reaching out to the elderly which is a beautiful thing in a terrible time."
St. Anne Catholic Church in Oswego, similarly, has deacons and laity who normally would visit the home-bound and seniors in the three facilities closest to the parish who continue to check in by phone.
"It's a once a week call, we are calling members of the parish who are 60 and over, staying in touch, supporting them, letting them know that we support them in prayer and in needs," said Deacon David Brockman of St. Anne's. "If there is a material need they can express it to us and we try to work with them. If we can't help them we find someone or an agency that can."
Fish appreciates that more people are stepping out, not just pastors but members of St. Mark's, to offer their help. At St. Mark's they have expanded their shut-ins to include anyone who is isolated with multiple calls from different people on the "We Care" team.
He's been doing many more prayers by phone, which he's found unorthodox yet meaningful.
"It's weird to pray over the phone because number one, it's hard and number two, it just feels weird, but I have been astonished that every time I have prayed how meaningful it has been for people on the other side," Fish said. "It still has the same capacity. They are still feeling God on the phone."
At Harvest, online counseling is available for free, and people can choose to do virtual counseling. The church is also in the second week of a series "Not Afraid" that is live-streamed on its website.
"The whole theme of it is we are choosing to not be afraid, that God is in control," Wyatt said. "We understand that there are so many different emotions. We have care people calling, letting people talk."
All Illinois churches are dealing with the reality of services transitioning from public to digital with Gov. JB Pritzker's mandate that all gatherings of 50 or more people be canceled throughout the state.
Harvest usually has about 45 members that are not able to come to church, in which case they mail CDs of the service or provide access online.
Last Sunday was the first Sunday Harvest went completely online, with a prerecorded service shown on its website and Facebook at the three different service times. For seniors who struggle to get connected, Harvest has a tech group to get them connected so they can view services.
St. Anne, a parish in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet which has already canceled Holy Week services, just had its second weekend of masses prerecorded and available to be viewed on its website or YouTube.
"We are keeping in contact with the home-bound by phone, making sure they are up to date, if they have internet giving them the links where they can view masses," Brockman said.
St. Mark's has had its services prerecorded and broadcast live on its Facebook page; Fish, also, has done Facebook Live Evening devotions.
All of the churches are doing their best to stay connected in a very disconnected time.
"My mom's in Plainfield, can't see my kids, it feels like we're seven states away," Fish said. "How do we as a church make people feel connected? It will never be the same, but we are trying to utilize what we have as best as we can. It's our version of caring for our neighbor, is doing what we are doing."