Coronavirus News: How spiritual counselors bring faith, connection in a time of COVID-19

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- As the coronavirus claims tens of thousands of American lives, spiritual counselors are facing an already daunting job - bringing faith and connection to the sick and bereaved, and honoring the dead.

The Reverend Roger Jackson of Saint Paul's United Methodist Church was permitted to spend only 15 minutes at the graveside service for a member of his congregation who died.

"People are sick, people are dying, and we can't give the kind of pastoral presence and care that we normally do," said Rev. Jackson.

Silvia Mejia of Mt. Sinai Beth Israel helps families cope with the coronavirus pandemic. She is largely barred from entering patients' rooms while she watches some of her own loved ones battle the virus.

"This feels bigger than a job right now - it feels like a purpose. And something that we are to witness and to accompany people through some of the hardest times in their lives. It's heartbreaking, and it's also really beautiful to be able to do that for someone else," said Mejia.

Fellow chaplain Rabbi Rachel Van Thyn also feels a need to comfort.

"A big part of our role is helping people not feel alone. Whether that's a patient or a loved one. But it's really providing presence in any way that we can," said Rabbi Van Thyn.

There is a struggle to bring spiritual comfort in the hotspot that is New York City, where more than 13,000 people have died from coronavirus. Amid the suffering and loss, social distancing has made communal prayers complicated at a time when many are craving connection and community warmth.

Even so, dozens joined a recent virtual prayer service, led by Imam Khalid Latif, the chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University.

"We're in these days of physical separation, we don't have to buy into the idea that our being physically separate from one another, necessitates somehow being spiritually disconnected," said Imam Latif.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton of the East End Temple in the East Village steered his congregation through the difficult choice to suspend all in-person care, including funerals, to help protect collective health during the peak of the pandemic. Instead, he uses technology to keep his community connected.

"I actually think that the internet has increased our reach and our ability to connect with people and while there's nothing like being with them in person, holding the hand of someone who is scared, this is the next best thing," said Rabbi Stanton.

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