Living Mercy in the Pandemic

A woman holding a child in her arms.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… so that you also may have fellowship with us;
and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
1John 1:1 & 3

ByMaria DiBello, RSM and Bernadette Rudolph

Recently, Cranaleith hosted an online panel discussion entitled, “The Pandemic and Those Most Vulnerable.” The panelists each minister in Philadelphia’s center city or its Kensington neighborhood:

  • Eileen Sizer, RSM, Living Room Coordinator at Hub of Hope, Project HOME
  • Hillary Miller, Community Health Nurse, Pathways to Housing
  • Fr. Liam Murphy, Mother of Mercy Mission
  • Johanna Berrigan, House of Grace Catholic Worker

Their stories and reflections were beautiful and challenging. What follows are highlights.

What do you experience as the impact of COVID-19 on your daily ministry?
Eileen described the community that had formed in the past at the drop-in center, Hub of Hope, in an unused subway station. Now, however, that has disappeared. The shelter-in-place order most of us take to mean as “stay home” means “stay out” to the homeless. Their usual hangouts – libraries or Hub of Hope, for example – are closed or cannot be used in the same way. She is surprised by the resiliency the homeless demonstrate yet again, but wonders if the community everyone worked so hard to build in the past can be rebuilt. Eileen told about Joey, who has a “Kool-Aid smile,” losing all he had. As she encouraged him to keep working with her on rebuilding, he said, “I’ll be back tomorrow for some hope.”

Hillary works at a clinic for 80-90 people who are addicts. Many of her clients have multiple health issues. The health system has let them down in the past. Her presence reassures them in spite of their mistrust, yet she cannot accompany them to the hospital now. PPEs are frequently misinterpreted: the homeless think masks, gowns and gloves are worn because they are dangerous. Their shame grows. Hillary scrambles to reassure her patients that it is she who is the danger, but it is hard to trust someone with a mask on.

Joanna heads a health care clinic and house of hospitality. In the past thirteen people/day could shower; now, with the disinfecting that must take place between showers, that number has decreased. Trained “listeners,” who are just someone the poor can talk to, have moved their conversations onto phones. When Catholic Worker in Philly talks with its companion house in Haiti, both houses now share the same reality of heartbreak and fear.

Liam told of a growing ministry to a predominantly Latinx community in Kensington: Mother of Mercy Mission had just moved into a larger building when the pandemic hit. The struggles and anxiety pre-pandemic have magnified. The mission can no longer offer a place to socialize, yet more people are waiting in line for groceries. Members of the community that has formed lookout for one another. When Fr. Liam Murphy tells someone that people have been asking about them, “they are thrilled to be known; they are relieved not to be forgotten.”

When you were invited to be on this panel, a number of you – independent of each other – said, “No one knows what the poor are carrying.” What do you want us to know?

Johanna noted that the inequities in the health care system are being made more obvious. Will real change come now that everyone can see it? The wounds of the poor have been made deeper.

Hillary related an experience she had recently with a man suffering from schizophrenia. He was having an episode and had no medication. He rested on a bed in the clinic while the medication took effect. As he hungrily ate snacks, he said it felt so good to lie down. He keeps being kicked off of all the usual corners where he has been able to sleep in the past, so he hadn’t slept in days.

From Eileen’s perspective, nothing is really different, just highlighted. Where she ministers near City Hall, the typically busy public spaces are empty. There are no crowds to hide homeless people.

Liam reported that anxiety is up. Shame is up. Loneliness is up.

What gives you hope?
Liam gets hope from watching the way the poor care for each other. Also, the mission has been
inundated with calls asking, “How can we help?” A parish in the suburbs sent five carloads of food. The mission staff enjoyed the happy “problem” of not having enough storage space for this prodigal gift.

Eileen is energized by the younger generation of workers who are “holding this together.” She is also grateful for people who have rallied around her calls for help. For example, since soup kitchens can only hand out cold food, her homeless “friends” had been talking about their desire for a hot meal. When Eileen let some Mercy sisters know, people brought crock pots and food fresh from the oven.

Pathways to Hope is down five staff members, and there are so many people to help. Hillary relies on the people who support her to keep her spirits up.

Johanna is impressed with the outpouring of generosity she has seen. Since part of her work is community health education, she is encouraged by people’s growing acceptance of social distancing. Johanna is surprised there has not been more deterioration. The homeless had already been living lives of uncertainty; this just asks of them a deeper level of surrender – something they seem to be doing.

What can the people in the audience do to show solidarity and concern?

Eileen wants us to pray. She shared an example of a man who had lost his job and subsequently lost the room he was renting in someone’s apartment. She had helped him complete a grant application that would have given him enough money to get back into that room rental. When it came time to complete an additional piece of the grant application, Johanna had no way to find the man. Without a job, he could not afford a cell phone. So he missed the application deadline. A few days later, a VA shelter announced it had room for him, with all kinds of needed services. The Spirit had another, better plan!

Johanna echoed the need for prayer; she also called for continued generosity. Johanna encouraged us to pace ourselves, because this may be a prolonged situation of increased need. Not everyone will go back to work at once. There may be further waves of the pandemic and subsequently of sheltering in place. Johanna delineated a greater need for other kinds of support besides food and shelter: pastoral support, mental health support and rent support. Finally she said, “support those you already encourage.” Our neighbors, the elderly and homebound – everyone needs help getting through this.

Liam wants us to be aware of what is happening and what is being done. He invited us to visit Mother of Mercy Mission website.

Hillary encouraged everyone to hasten to get their mail-in ballots; her clinic is helping the homeless get ballots too. She wanted us to be aware of how “black and brown communities are being affected at higher rates” and cited the over-sized patient censuses at Einstein and Temple, hospitals that serve those communities. Hillary drew our attention to how the imprisoned are enduring higher infection rates than the general public. Early release is not a simple solution to this problem as returning citizens struggle to adjust to life outside of prison, facing poverty, a lack of employment and families who fear infection. She hoped there could be more help with mental health issues. Her last request was simply for more snacks for patients who visit her clinic and who are hungrier than ever.

P.S. Before we had signed off, both Liam and Johanna let Hillary know they had food to share!

This is the message we have heard from [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.
1John 1:5

©05/26/2020 Bernadette Rudolph and Maria DiBello