Clergy in the Trenches of an Unforgiving War

April 7, 2020

Rev. David Fleenor stood in the New York City morgue, looking at the body of someone's mother. As a chaplain for Mount Sinai Hospital, death was always a part of his job. But not like this. Not for so many. Holding a telephone to his ear, he tried to soothe the son, telling his mom all the things the young man wished he could say in person. "I'm sorry I can't be there. I love you." But even now, as the images of heartbreak pile up in his mind, he calls it a privilege to be the hurting city's proxy.

Like doctors and nurses, Rev. Fleenor has been on the front lines of the virus for weeks. In normal times, he says, "One of the big challenges in chaplaincy under non-pandemic circumstances is how do we get to the neediest patients first?" Now, with the crisis claiming thousands of lives a day, there's "no hospital in America that has enough chaplains." Which is why, he insists, every one of them is essential.

Rabbi Kara Tav understands all too well. Her Facebook feed has been full of the suffering she's seen as the manager of spiritual care services at another hospital in New York City. She struggles to keep it together most days, saying the virus has made her job a living hell. "Normally my job is to listen, to comfort, to pray for healing. Now my job is to pray for a swift and merciful death for most of my patients. I hold weeping, sweaty-faced nurses through gloves and masks, to whom I promise their work is meaningful and changing lives. I promise them that it's okay to feel bone-tired, that everyone's living with nightmares that they're going to get sick. I have spent this morning making condolence calls (30 deaths over the weekend. We normally have five)."

Rabbi Tav and Rev. Fleenor have been lucky. They both work at hospitals that consider their positions "critical." Until last week, not all of them could. Despite the fact that hundreds of chaplains have been calling into hospitals and volunteering their services, a lot of health care facilities were still confused about who could and couldn't be walking the hallways during the crisis.

It's an issue FRC took up privately with the Trump administration, first with the Department of Homeland Security -- and later with Vice President Mike Pence. If we take clergy into battle, I urged, then we should be taking them into this one. More than ever, America needs its spiritual leaders. In situations as dire as this, we need clergy to be treated like first responders -- moving and ministering on the front lines. The vice president promised to look into it, and we're happy to announce -- he did. Last week, FRC was grateful to see that DHS's definitive list of personnel for federal agencies now includes "clergy for essential support."

That's a game-changer -- not just for the patients and the parents and the dying, but for maxed-out hospital workers who are struggling to take care of everyone else. Deep down, every one of them needs to know: they're not alone. It's the closest thing to war many of them will ever see. "Pray for us," one nurse says as she walks by the chaplain every morning. "Pray that we make it through the day."

"It reminds me so much of the time I spent in Desert Storm," said Chaplain Rocky Walker, a 25-year Army veteran. "I'm closer to death now than I was on the very front lines of combat. It's not natural to go racing toward someone or something that is trying to kill you. That's what health care workers are doing every day when they get out of bed and come into the hospital." Now, thanks to the Trump administration, they'll at least have someone in the foxhole with them.