Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series about how priests and lay members across The Episcopal Church are caring for one another during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have an inspiring pastoral care story to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Episcopal News Service] When it comes to providing pastoral care in times of crisis, the Rev. Tommy Dillon is about as prepared as any priest could be.
Dillon, the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, learned the logistics of disaster response firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While serving at a different church in Baton Rouge, Dillon helped feed 30,000 meals per day to Katrina evacuees through his family’s catering business and tended to the spiritual needs of the evacuees – all on top of his duties as a parish priest.
Then, while serving as a rector in San Francisco, Dillon was named the disaster preparedness coordinator for the Diocese of California and worked with the city to make his church’s neighborhood more earthquake resilient, using grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We started having meetings between all the different groups in the neighborhood – businesses, condo associations – and we developed relationships. We came up with plans about, if there was an earthquake, who would provide food, who would provide shelter,” Dillon told Episcopal News Service.
In 2013, the Diocese of California passed a resolution requiring every church to have a disaster preparedness plan. And one of the scenarios Dillon worked with his congregation to prepare for – along with the more prominent threats of earthquakes and tsunamis – was a pandemic.
“We talked about, how can we be the church when we’re not able to respond in person? And we went through scenarios around that,” Dillon said.
Then, the week that Dillon moved back to Louisiana to start his current job in 2016, over 100,000 homes in southern Louisiana were flooded.
“I was mucking people’s homes out before my first day of work, because we had about 12 to 15 families in our church whose homes were destroyed by the flood,” Dillon said.
So when COVID-19 started to rear its head in the United States, Dillon took swift precautionary actions to protect his congregation. He switched to online worship at St. Margaret’s starting on March 15, a week before the bishop of Louisiana required it, knowing from his experience in preparing for pandemics and other disasters that early action can save lives.
“It’s taken a horrible pandemic for us to think about what church is, more than just a Sunday gathering.”
“Those experiences really allowed me to be able to just jump right in and start doing things rather than stepping back,” Dillon explained. “The Wednesday before, I told my congregation that was there for our healing service: ‘You go out tonight and just buy what you need for three weeks.’ … And all that experience in how this would unfold came to fruition.”
As other institutions struggle to implement a pandemic response that tends to the needs of the community without contributing to further contagion, Dillon and his congregation are demonstrating how the church can do exactly that.
“I’m a creative person,” Dillon told ENS, “and this is just feeding me to think about long-term planning of reaching more people as the church. And it’s taken a horrible pandemic for us to think about what church is, more than just a Sunday gathering.”
St. Margaret’s, like many Episcopal churches, is livestreaming its services, and Sunday school is continuing via Zoom videoconference. But one of Dillon’s top priorities is connecting with older parishioners in particular – and not simply checking on them, but staying in regular contact. Using a phone tree, every parishioner with a phone number in the parish database was called on March 14, and the parish pastoral care team is calling anyone who is over 60 and lives alone and those with medical conditions at least every three days – or, if needed, every day.
With the situation changing swiftly and unpredictably, Dillon is working with those he serves to meet their needs in a flexible way. He was scheduled to marry Corinne Perez and Thomas Gray of Houston, Texas, in New Orleans on March 21, with a full Eucharist and a reception. When those plans were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dillon encouraged them to get married anyway, recognizing that a couple’s legal status would be critically important in the event of a medical emergency.
“I talked to them and I was like, ‘You know what? This is a time when the wedding needs to happen. Because, no matter what happens, you need to be legally married,’” Dillon said. “And so I said, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
The couple had a Louisiana marriage license, so Dillon suggested they meet in Lake Charles, Louisiana – near the border with Texas, and about halfway between Houston and Baton Rouge – on March 20 and have a big celebration with friends and family later. In keeping with health officials’ guidelines on physical distancing, it was a very small service: just Dillon, the couple, and two witnesses. Standing by a picnic table in a park, Perez and Gray became husband and wife.
“It was one of the holiest weddings I’ve ever officiated at,” Dillon said. “I said, ‘The kingdom of God is right here in the middle of this pandemic.’”
Dillon sees the kingdom of God in the way his parishioners are caring for each other, too. He was moved to see a photo of longtime parishioner Dottie Smith keeping her husband Randy company by sitting outside the window of his room at the assisted living center where he is being treated for diabetes. Dottie has been visiting Randy every day, Dillon said, and when the facility stopped allowing visitors, Dottie simply sat outside. She even brought him his favorite barbecue dish – which the staff delivered to his room – and kept him company while he ate.
“That’s what the kingdom of God is … Dottie Smith sitting outside her husband’s window, just lovingly looking at him, and for him to be able to see her,” Dillon said.
Dillon knows that keeping his community spiritually and physically healthy through this pandemic will be a long haul, and he’s busy envisioning different ways that he can provide care while keeping his distance.
“We’re dreaming now in our church about how we respond in a healthy way to the needs in our neighborhood and be the church for the neighborhood,” he told ENS. “And I truly believe that, for all of us who are priests, this is the moment that we’ve been trained for our whole lives, to be that holy presence right now. And everything we’ve learned has built up to be able to be that presence.”
This story has been updated to reflect the cancellation of St. Margaret’s drive-through Eucharist service.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.