The Coronavirus 'Essentials'

April 13, 2020

"It's not supposed to be like this," Leah Klug thought, tugging on her face mask. "Her family is supposed to be here." But, in the Seattle hospital where she ministered -- like so many others around the world -- that was no longer an option. She dabbed oil by the patient's head and read a verse from the book of John. "We are walking," a fellow chaplain said somberly, "in the valley of the shadow of death." They do it with families, fears, and fragilities of their own -- but they do it, in many cases, because they are the only ones who can.

The pastors, priests, and rabbis fanned out across hospital floors in America don't have easy jobs. "There's no playbook for this," Leah said. "It's just showing genuine care." Thanks to the Trump administration, that care may now become standard practice in some of the bleakest, loneliest ICU rooms on earth. Just knowing a minister is outside their door can be comforting, a Wisconsin medical staffer explained. FaceTime and Skype and other programs are helpful, she agreed, but nothing can replace having a person nearby. "There's something about being proximate that can be really meaningful for the patient and for us."

A lot of the credit for that in-person ministry belongs to Vice President Mike Pence and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, who listened to our suggestion that clergy be listed as "essential personnel" in the official government guidance. A couple of weeks ago, DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, created the comprehensive list of critical infrastructure workers guidance. As he explained to me on Friday's "Washington Watch," it's a list of people in our sectors who "need to go to work every day, need to keep the economy running, keep the supply chain full. And as governors put in place shelter-in-place procedures, we need to make sure that certain individuals can still come and go and do their job, so that the lights turn on, the water keeps running, there's gas in the trucks to deliver [aid], and the like."

In FRC's opinion, the government should approach the battle against the virus like it would any other: with spiritual leaders on the front lines. So, we lobbied DHS and the White House to make that official in any upcoming guidance. "We went through a process [of] looking at the different sectors..." Secretary Wolf explained, "and [in late March], we released version 2.0 [of essential personnel]. We're actually up to 3.0 [as of] this weekend. But in the 2.0 version, we did include clergy in there -- recognizing that they provide a supportive and essential service, particularly in a number of hospitals, funeral homes, and the like as we deal with COVID and everything that that entails."

It's Wolf's job to make sure that the right individuals -- the right workforce -- is on the ground, because, as he pointed out, "We know governors are paying attention. There've been upwards of 20 governors that have linked to this specific list when they put some of their shelter-in place procedures in place. And we've gotten pretty good feedback about the work that we've done with this list. And as you indicated, I'm happy that we did include clergy there again to provide that supportive and essential function."

Of course, different states have different needs. "West Virginia may need miners to go to go to work every day. New York City needs the financial services folks going to work every day." But there's one group of people that everyone needs, and that's clergy. In Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, one minister gets in every morning at 5:45 a.m. -- like clockwork -- just so she can be there when the ER and ICU workers are catching up on their caseloads. "These are people who are overcoming their own fear and exhaustion to do the job they are called to do. I am the safe place to express their sadness, their fear, their grief." In times like these, she says, sometimes just "healing the healers" is the most important work they can do.