In March 2020, the world stood at the precipice of a global pandemic, which is now endemic. People hit pause on their lives. Masks, social distancing, and remote work for those able to do so became the norm, while essential workers bore the brunt of the pandemic. It all became rapidly politicized. As the world awaited the relief that the COVID vaccine would bring, the situation further devolved due to rampant misinformation and mistrust.
Then came the murders of numerous Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia by a band of vigilantes, and George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Dereck Chauvin, triggering the righteous global outcry that followed their senseless murders. Much of the community can never know the real fear that Black Americans face regarding this.
False claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election and the January 6th Capitol riot that ensued exacerbated an already difficult year. Then inflation hit the world with a knockout punch.
It is through this intersectionality that Ripples queried PHJC community members to see how they’re handling a shifting world. Campus Minster Staci Bolakowski of Marian University’s Ancilla College was the Director of Mission and Ministry at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Indiana at the height of the pandemic. She got a first-hand glimpse of what it was like to be an educator when virtual learning became the norm.
To that end she and her then coworkers called 200 families in a ten-day period, the same number they’d called in the previous year. “We checked in, asking ‘how are you doing? And what can we do?’” From these calls, she learned that some students couldn’t access virtual learning because they had no home internet. Some were also dealing with food insecurity, so she and her team provided it. “Hope comes from thinking outside the box,” Staci said. To that end, she and her team tried to mark milestones, such as Holy Thursday, by having parish families do foot washings at home and share their photos, creating a sense of togetherness while apart.
Pivoting is something other Poor Handmaid ministries did as well. HealthVisions Midwest Fort Wayne was no different, according to Administrative Assistant Felicia Say. “Before the pandemic, all the programs were held in-person. As we progressed through the pandemic, we made significant changes to our programming to allow the continuation of our mission in new ways,” she said. “This included doing health presentations over the phone and on a one-on-one basis compared to meeting in a large group. This one on-one aspect provided us with the opportunity to get to better know our clients and opened the door for us to better serve their individual needs. Additionally, we began implementing new virtual programs, which allowed us to expand our reach beyond just Fort Wayne.”
Environmental Services coworker Janet Bone found the last three years “overwhelming.” She feels lucky to have been paid for 40 hours during the lockdown. “I faced challenges I hadn’t before, that I never imagined facing,” Janet said “I have a different perspective on life. I take things day by day and handle situations as they come.”
For Maria Center resident Bill Burke, who cares for his wife Carol as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, the pandemic added much to his already full plate as her primary caregiver. “Caregiving assistance daily and eventually Hospice visits several times a week continues to occupy most of our time and attention, but these concerns pre-date COVID. Still, I think our Alzheimer’s experience may not be too different from many others COVID experiences,” he said.
Hope, change, and turning inward to God made the incessant change more bearable, even as almost all of those queried felt the common threads of depression and anxiety sinking in.
Sister Mary Baird turned inward, joining the King Arthur Baking Company, and she began making “scrumptious goodies” for her fellow Sisters.
She also took up homebrewing beer. “I began to make beer at the lodge. We have an invasion of Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), so with an ample supply of this plant we began to make Lemon-Mugwort beer following the recipe in a new book titled The Wildcrafting Brewer. We made several other recipes using local flora. We logged 18 experiments,” Sister Mary said.
For Staci, zoom gathering with friends elucidated her to the fact that what she thought was clumsiness was really anxiety. “I consider myself a type B (relaxed), so when I noticed myself dropping things or a new level of clumsiness, a friend clued me in that it was actually anxiety,” Staci explained. “It was eye-opening, I didn’t want to admit it.” She also got COVID in the fall of 2020, before the introduction of vaccines. She deals with long COVID to this day, and she’s adapting to a new normal. “I try to be more positive, forward moving, and accepting,” she said. “I help to educate where it’s receptive. At least I can plant the seeds.”
“I remember feeling extremely anxious and angry at what I was seeing on the news of the devastation that COVID-19 was raging on the world,” Felicia said. “I felt worried, confused, stressed, and frustrated about how COVID-19 was changing my normal.” Like many, she turned to God.
“As I sat with these feelings, I recognized that only God truly knew all that was going on. He truly knew the fear that the pandemic brought, and He truly knew the knowledge that doctors possessed,” she said.
“Also, due to the lockdown and being stuck at home, I was able to spend more time with God in prayer and reading the Word. What I experienced and learned during 2020, has helped me when I feel anxious. I know that I can draw nearer to God and that He will uphold me.”
Janet also found strength she didn’t know she possessed through the humbling act of asking for help. “I’ve gotten a lot better at handling anxiety and working through it,” she explained. “Being vulnerable with my family and friends, even if they can’t help me, it helps to talk about it and share my struggles, she said. “I’ve learned that I’m resilient and that I’m capable of handling stressful situations and working through my anxiety.”
For his part, Bill noticed the inequities in an increasingly global society that the pandemic laid bare. “COVID and its shadow have darkened my outlook on life” he said. “The global reach of COVID has become emblematic of the fragility of life on planet Earth. It has been a catalyst in bringing my attention to the mass migrations across the globe as millions try to find security in ever-shrinking safe spaces. As climate change increases its grip on life with ever increasing fire, floods, droughts, and famine, COVID has spread indiscriminately among privileged and destitute alike.”
Additionally, the Poor Handmaid Sisters created opportunities to heal our country’s racial divisions during this pivotal time in American history, according to Relational Services Executive Director Arleen Peterson. “PHJC Sisters, coworkers, and residents spent countless hours bringing awareness, relearning racial equity, and dismantling structural racism. From the workshops, to reading books, to facilitated presentations from racial equity experts such as Dr. Redgina Hill, Father Dan Horan, OFM, and myself. This built the faith of so many, especially me as a Black American coworker, that change is possible,” Arleen said. “Having a dedicated staff to Diversity Equity and Inclusion is an amazing example of pivoting.”
Bill was wistful and thoughtful when he pondered moving forward from the past three years. “I think we need a universal spiritual base to confront all the changes taking place. I think our theological assumptions require revisiting,” he said.
“I wish religions were less sectarian, less about difference and more about likeness. I think a global God, Creator of everything, could unleash tremendous healing unifying energy. I don’t think Russia would invade Ukraine if nearly all the religions on earth rose up in opposition. God needs to be set free of doctrinal chains in order to be the force to bring people together. I wish we talked of Christ, Allah, Krishna as all faces of the one Mystery God," Bill added.