Putting Ministry on the Front Lines

April 20, 2020

Homeland Security is used to handling disasters. But no one ever imagined anything like this. Even FEMA, who's the first government team on the ground after a catastrophe, is usually only juggling three or four states at a time. Now imagine every county, every American territory, in a state of emergency, Acting Secretary Chad Wolf says. "It's like a Category 5 tornado hitting all 50 states at the same time." And without churches and charities on the front lines, who knows where our country would be?

"I've been with the department for some time now," Secretary Wolf told a group of pastors on an FRC conference call Friday. He was there in 2017 during those devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. "And what I saw as we responded, and FEMA responded... is the federal government can provide a role. But it's really the nonprofits, it's the faith-based organizations, that come out in force providing anything from housing to essential goods, food, water, shelter. [They are] the backbone of that response that really helps individual states and individual communities respond." That outreach has never been more critical to America's survival than now. So "thank you," he insisted. "Our country needs and values you."

And not just to meet the physical needs, as his agency well knows, but the spiritual too. The grief of a nation trying to cope with tens of thousands of losses is overwhelming. Patients are dying alone. Bodies are being ravaged by an enemy no doctor understands. Then there are the hospital staffs, bone-weary and traumatized by the faces they can't forget. "Where is God in this?" one nurse asked a chaplain, crying. "Right here," Kaitlyn Butler reassured her, "crying with us."

The suffering is everywhere it seems -- but so is an army of clergy, deployed like they have been throughout wars and plagues and conflicts to offer the thing everyone is seeking: comfort. "I know the consequences," Reverend Manuel Dorantes nodded slowly. But, "we are called to do this." And their service, as brave as anyone else's on the virus battlefield, is essential.

When COVID-19 first struck, Secretary Wolf explained, "We wanted to make sure that we had the essential workforce could get back and forth to work, could do their essential jobs, could turn the lights on, make sure the water is running, making sure the trucks, the cargoes moving, that supply chain keeps moving. All those essential services we... continue to believe are critical to the way that the country responds... And Tony and others reached out and said, 'Hey, you need to start thinking about the clergy and what these faith-based organizations provide. And while folks in law enforcement may not think of them as first responders, they're absolutely essential...'"

Secretary Wolf listened and took that suggestion back to his team. Seven days later, "clergy" was on the authoritative list that DHS sent to every governor in the country. "It's an acknowledgment of the type of supportive and essential role that you play," he encouraged the pastors, "particularly in this in this pandemic, in what we're facing." A third version, he pointed out, was just released and also includes clergy. "We're proud of that. I want to say thank you for the group here to weighing in. We heard [you]..."

So has President Trump. On a conference call with faith leaders Friday afternoon, the importance of state leaders following the guidance on clergy was discussed -- along with how valuable the president believes churches have been in the fight against coronavirus. It was another reminder of just how fortunate we are to have an administration that isn't indifferent or hostile to the faith community -- as others have been -- but committed to helping us in whatever ministry we've been called to.

And, as anxious as everyone is to put people back in the pews, the president thanked the faith leaders for heeding and responding creatively to the government's guidelines. Pastors applauded his Justice Department for stepping in and defending churches against overzealous city officials. As Secretary Wolf pointed out, it's going to be a very intentional and gradual process before we get back to any sense of Sunday normalcy. States will have to reach certain benchmarks before they even think about services with 50 or more individuals. And even then, there will be certain protective measures in place. "Pay attention to what your governor is saying," he urged, "and how that individual progress is occurring in your state."

For more information on your state's approach to faith leaders in the crisis, check out FRC's brand new issue brief, "Restrictions on Religious Freedom during the Coronavirus." Our experts break down the latest controversies, legal issues, policy recommendations, and explain what churches can do in these unprecedented times.