By Neva Rae Fox

Dioceses across the church are stepping up community efforts during the pandemic. In the Diocese of Long Island, innovative ministries have evolved and popped up around a hospital that is bursting with patients.

The Diocese of Long Island encompasses 133 worshiping communities in Brooklyn and Queens in NYC and Nassau and Suffolk counties, currently among the hardest hit areas. The Diocese maintains a strong relationship with St. John’s Episcopal Hospital. Episcopal Health Services, an arm of the diocese (one of seven such corporations around the country), owns and operates the hospital; the bishop of the diocese is president of the board.

Bishop Lawrence Provenzano has been in close contact with the hospital administration since the onset of the pandemic, and he minced no words in describing the impact of COVID-19 on the 270-bed facility.  “The hospital situation is grim,” he reported.

With the hospital census consistently over capacity throughout the pandemic, St. John’s looks similar to other hospital images seen on TV. Earlier in the week, he said, “The Emergency Room had more than 60 people waiting to come in, with ambulances outside also waiting to come in.”

Speaking from his shelter-in-place, Provenzano put the hospital in perspective as to its role in the community. “St. John’s is a safety-net community hospital in New York with 88% free or Medicare and Medicaid.”

Like most facilities, the hospital activity has been feverish, with the staff’s efforts stretched.

“Because of the capacity of the hospital and the tremendous rush of patients, the administration asked if we could call for volunteers,” Provenzano said.  “So, we did.”

The diocese responded!

“We have clergy in the diocese who wanted to do something, and they stepped up.” Provenzano said approximately one dozen volunteered. But the bishop was quick to point out that the volunteers must meet a set of criteria.

  • The priests and deacons are required to be CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) trained.
  • The ordained volunteers operate under both the hospital’s pastoral care team and the coordinator of volunteer services.
  • The volunteers could not be a member of any high-risk groups (not over 60, no pre-existing health problems, etc.).
  • The volunteers must meet physical and other requirements.

While the ordained volunteers provide pastoral care, Provenzano said they also assist in important and basic ways in this time of emergency, such as moving beds, thereby allowing healthcare professionals to focus on their patients.

Through these efforts, another avenue for frontline ministry was uncovered. “It became clear that shifts had no access to food,” he said. “Hearing that, I reached out to Dean Michael Sniffen of the cathedral and he has arranged with kitchens to provide meals for staff at the hospital.”

Provenzano said 1,000 meals a week have been delivered to St. John’s. This, in turn, sparked yet another ministry. With grant assistance from Episcopal Ministries of Long Island, “We are employing kitchen workers and keeping them employed.”

Now, the generosity of the community is also being witnessed through donations of kitchen services and food from area country clubs.

Why all this ministry?

Provenzano explained, “It’s our hospital and it’s our people. We feel the responsibility. This is a way that we can provide support. We are putting people first.”