With tears in her eyes, Val Little smiled as she talked about her new apartment after living in a homeless shelter.
“Very hard,” she said of last year. “It’s sad. But for right now, I just got into my place … I don’t have much right now. I’m glad it’s warming up.”
The petite Black woman, who looked as if she could be anyone’s next-door neighbor, was appreciative as she picked up a suitcase of clothes from Helping Hand of Greater Little Rock.
“I’m just thankful … very thankful for me to get on my feet, and to then give back,” she said.
The year of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of loss -- from loved ones to livelihoods, from social gatherings to housing.
Diocesan, parish and local ministries and nonprofits did their best in the past year to not only recognize God’s presence in each person they served, but to be Christ to them in return under the impossible circumstances of the deadly coronavirus.
“Pray,” said Laura Humphries, grief ministry leader at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, advice for all who have lost someone or something throughout the pandemic. “If you’re mad at God it’s OK. God is big, he can handle it. He’s not going to stop loving you. You just have to remember bad things happen, and there’s never a reason we can come up with that’s good enough.”
As of March 4, Arkansas has lost 5,273 people to COVID-19. Coupled with the countless other reasons people die daily, it makes grief ministry all the more vital.
Humphries, who leads the grief support ministry at Holy Souls with Dr. MaryAnn Stafford, said with delayed or downsized funerals, the opportunity to mourn within a supportive community was nonexistent.
“Everybody is talking about the new normal because of the pandemic, but grief ministry has been using those words for a long time,” she said. “You have to learn to live without them. It’s never going to be the same anymore. You have to live in your new normal.”
An 11-week Zoom grief support group drew about seven participants from across the state.
“The pandemic, the isolation, I think that was pretty traumatic on people who had lost someone. I know there are those people that want to be by themselves, but in my mind, that’s not healthy,” she added. “In order to get through your grief, you have to talk about it. If you don’t talk about it, you won’t work through it.”
Journaling and writing letters to a loved one who has passed and finding someone to talk with can help people learn to live with their grief. While meeting in person is ideal, she’ll explore using Zoom again in the future.
Staff at Jericho Way day resource center are accustomed to seeing the daily stresses of living on the street in each one of their clients -- from those stopping by for a meal, job application help, laundry or a shower, seeking housing or just a safe place to sit for a while.
The pandemic made every part of an already difficult situation harder. Executive director Mandy Davis said the most important lesson she’s learned has been how much the lack of housing impacts a person’s health.
“Quarantining without housing; sick without housing; advocating for a vaccine without housing; it’s impossible,” she said. “Housing and health are linked and until we treat them this way, the health disparities will rise for people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable groups.”
In New York City, according to a March 4 Reuters article, the homeless population died of COVID-19 at a 78 percent higher rate than those who were housed.
“The results of us not providing affordable safe housing for folks is that they die more often,” Davis said. “And too often, the things they die of are preventable.”
Helping Hand of Greater Little Rock celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 the best way possible: by being there in a year when people needed them the most. They stayed open four days a week like always, only cutting back one hour, with just two paid staff members and about 10 volunteers on average, down from more than 20 people normally assisting clients. The thrift store has remained closed, only used for emergencies.
“We did a lot of praying and the Lord hears our prayers,” said executive director Gayle Priddy, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock. “This agency is just blessed because we help the poor in our community.”
In February, despite being closed a week because of the snowstorm, 1,100 families received food compared with 900 in February 2020, before the pandemic. Around 37,000 people were served in 2020, about 2,000 more than in 2019.
“I think it’s gotten worse,” Priddy said of food insecurity in Arkansas. “I’m seeing a whole bunch of new families and more seniors than we’ve had before. We’re seeing over 300 seniors a month and we used to maybe do 100.”
While food donations have gone down, cash donations spiked, with $20,000 donated in 2020.
Elizabeth Reha, director of the diocesan Family Life Office, said Catholic families in Arkansas have persevered during this pandemic, whether it was by watching Mass as a couple or in helping their children with virtual school.
“What I’ve noticed, now that the restrictions have been partially lifted, a lot more families are coming back to Mass,” Reha said. “They see the fruit of that, the importance of that.”
At the start of the pandemic, several couples rescheduled their marriages and today, though sacramental preparation is still primarily online, more are going forward with their weddings, Reha said. In 2020, the diocese received marriage paperwork for 367 weddings, down 37 percent from 580 received in 2019.
For family life going forward, Reha said she’s most concerned about the stress of grief in losing not only lives, but “pivotal moments.”
“The holidays in which people were not around each other. Their extended length of time when people have not been connected, at least physically with anybody, I think that is wearing and stressing out folks,” she said.
March 19 will be the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” The Year of the Family will be observed from March 19 until the World Meeting of Families in Rome June 26, 2022. Reha said she hopes more outreach, hope and healing will mark the year.
“People are sitting at home, and maybe in the pews, that are hurting and we have not provided enough resources for them to get the help that they need,” she said.
Father Phillip Reaves, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Little Rock, said he and about 15 Catholic volunteers have not been able to go inside to see inmates in 12 months. The ministry serves 14 prison units within the state Department of Correction and a federal prison, along with dozens of county jails and other facilities. Only staff chaplains have been able to minister to inmates in person. According to the ADC, some modified in-person visitations were set to resume March 6 in a handful of units.
“In some cases, the volunteers are their contact with the outside world. In some cases they may be the only people that are showing an interest in that person. A lot of them have burnt their bridges or just when they messed up, everyone dropped them,” Father Reaves said. “... My concern is if the prolonged precautions are having a negative impact on the emotional state of the prisoners.”
He has sent the Mass readings and the prayer of spiritual Communion to the staff chaplains to be given to Catholic inmates.
Hispanic ministry and outreach to immigrants has been a mix of Zoom and meeting basic needs. Aside from a virtual meeting with the national V Encuentro program with parish leaders and a virtual interfaith leadership training, the programs of adult Hispanic Ministry at the diocesan level have been on hold. Hispanic Ministry director Sister Mickey Espinoza, MCP, said the young adult Hispanic ministry thrived on Zoom with holy hours and rosaries, praying for those in need. Overall, she said she’s concerned about some Hispanics returning to Mass, especially with so many programs canceled.
Being present and going to the people is “important and key to building this relationship and being able to express and celebrate their faith. And the closeness with other people, and belonging to this family,” she said.
For much of last year, Sister Iliana Aponte, DC, worked as a counselor for St. Theresa School in Little Rock. She is now the parish outreach liaison for Catholic Charities of Arkansas. She saw firsthand the unique struggles of immigrant parents at the school, which predominantly serves immigrants and lower-income families. Struggles included helping children with virtual school, job loss, not being able to travel back to their home countries to attend funerals of loved ones, contracting COVID-19 and losing paychecks because of it.
Sister Iliana helped facilitate drive-thru food assistance at the school and she, along with Sister Mickey and others, helped deliver food to those quarantining. Despite the struggles, many looked out for each other and gave back when they could. About 12 to 13 immigrant women involved in the sewing ministry at St. Theresa Church made about 4,000 masks for students, staff and others.
“The hardest part for the Latino community when they talked to me was when the church was closed,” Sister Iliana said. “This is the only way they share with other people and have a community life. The Latino community is resilient because of their faith.”
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