Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
A phone call can go a long way. It can reassure an individual that he is important, is cared for and is missed. It can give hope in bleakness.
Such is the premise of the newly established Discipleship CHRIST Force (DCF) at St. Nicholas Parish, Virginia Beach, through which volunteers have been reaching out to older parishioners regularly by phone during the pandemic.
After Bishop Barry C. Knestout suspended public Masses in the diocese on March 16, St. Nicholas pastor Father Venancio Balarote, known as Father Jun, called an emergency parish staff meeting in which they prayed and brainstormed on how they could help parishioners during the pandemic. They decided to reach out to parishioners over age 60, herein called seniors, because of their increased vulnerability to the coronavirus.
DCF, which was up and running within a week, has 41 volunteers who have called a collective 270 senior households regularly throughout the COVID-19 “shutdown,” said Lora Di Nardo, pastoral associate/ business manager.
Several callers and recipients said the hardest part of the pandemic for seniors has been isolation.
“Many of the seniors were involved in church ministry. To take that away from them was dramatic,” said caller Brian Garrison. “The calls let them know the parish is still thinking (about) and praying for them. It’s a way for the parish to connect as a family.”
The volunteers chat with the seniors, ask what they or the parish can do for them and inform them of opportunities such as praying in the church, watching livestreamed Masses and participating in parish activities, mostly virtual. They help tangibly, as needed, by grocery shopping and running other errands, some as simple as picking up palms for them for Palm Sunday. Sometimes they helped them over the phone with Facebook so the seniors could watch the Masses and keep in touch with the parish.
Father Jun said the primary objective is to tend to their spiritual needs, to offer Christ “non-sacramentally” to the seniors and reassure them they are not alone in this struggle, that Christ is with them always.
Steve Branning, director of Christian Formation and Evangelization, said DCF provides the opportunity for callers to be “a light in the darkness.”
“This isn’t just volunteering to help with groceries or to bring food to the vulnerable; it’s reaching out to people spiritually,” said Branning. For example, the caller might share the day’s Gospel reading, tell them about their favorite saint, talk about a faith-based book or pray the Act of Spiritual Communion or another prayer with them.
Angie Spears, one of the volunteers, agreed the calls can be a way to strengthen recipients’ faith and offer hope “by letting them know the Lord is with them and won’t forget about them.”
“We are acting as the body of Christ to be his hands and to be his voice. We are each part of that,” Spears said. “The purpose is to spread his love, his word, even in the simplest way with a phone call.”
Caller Ken Inglesby said DCF has helped “keep our congregation together.”
“It’s important for the parish to reach out to folks in tough times and let them know that it doesn’t matter what turmoil is going on, what uncertainty they face, what fears or concerns they have, the important thing is we are there for them,” Inglesby said.
A few youth and young adults are among DCF callers. Youth minister Ryan Castro said their involvement in the ministry shows the importance of helping others and demonstrates their ability to do so.
“The ministry has given volunteers the opportunity to be Christ to one another” Castro said.
Though COVID-19 restrictions are easing, DCF won’t have a formal ending; rather, outreach will either taper off or continue depending on the seniors’ needs and on the connections caller and senior have established.
Father Jun said the seniors are “thrilled and grateful” for the calls.
“It’s comforting to know that someone is worried about your health and welfare and is willing to help you,” said Bernie Galante, one of the seniors receiving calls. He added that the calls remind him that the church is just a building, but individuals make the parish a family.
Some of the seniors already had a support network of family and friends, yet several of them wanted the callers to continue reaching out to them.
The ministry is a way to give back to the seniors who have been active in the parish, Di Nardo said.
“The seniors made this parish a stewardship parish,” she explained. “They do so much for our parish, and this is our opportunity to support them in this time of uncertainty.”
Mary Lou Ferralli, Just Seniors chair, said the calls she has received were reassuring.
“Their calls showed that seniors are an important part of the Church family, and they are looking out for us,” Ferralli said. “It’s reassuring because if we needed help, they were there for us.”
“They see Christ in us,” she continued. “It is very heartwarming. It’s one of the reasons I just love my parish.”