Ministries reach the vulnerable in face of pandemic

April 28, 2020

Deacons Dan Gilbert and Fernando Garcia provide clothing to Lakesha Brown, program coordinator at Harris County Juvenile Detention Center. The center began hosting etiquette classes and were in need of donated formalware for youth. Special Youth Services got to work to provide these needed items. (Photo courtesy of Special Youth Services)

HOUSTON — The surge of COVID-19 cases in Metropolitan Houston in early March brought all 10 counties in the Archdiocese to a grinding halt.

As the global pandemic forced everyone to quarantine, ministries at the Archdiocese took immediate action to ensure the faithful would continue to have access to ministry, especially those most vulnerable.

Katherine Bingham, director of the Office of Aging ministry at the Archdiocese, said the office has been spending a great deal of time with personal phone calls to seniors, particularly those who are frail, live alone or don’t have access to the internet.

“They have been so appreciative of the call and personally thanked the office for being here for them during this time,” she said. “It gives them the chance to talk with a real person about the current situation, share their fear, anxiety, depression as well as the things that now occupy their days.”

The ministry also sends ongoing emails to parishes’ senior club presidents offering spiritual encouragement and contact information for helpful community resources.
They also have personal phone call check-ins with key parish leaders. For seniors with internet access, they have radio programs and presentations online at

“We send out group reflections and community resources to our senior group leaders twice a week and ask them to forward these to their group members,” Bingham said. “We are posting what we can on our webpage and directing them to that as well. The pastoral aspect of our ministry is so evident during this time.”

She said she had spoken to one senior who was diagnosed with COVID-19 and hospitalized for five days.

“She just got home a couple of days ago and is now recuperating; she is weak but grateful to be out of the hospital,” Bingham said.

She added other seniors are getting depressed while others are trying to find things to distract them.

“(One of our seniors) told me that she was turning the news off so her mind wouldn’t be filled with things out of her control — she was grateful for the call and asked that I call her back next week — I will,” Bingham said. “Another is doing well and has decided to ‘rediscover’ her talent at playing the organ at home. Another is calling her group members telling them to start cleaning out their closets so they will be ready for the church garage sale in the fall.”

Another ministry continuing their outreach is Special Youth Services (SYS), who was determined to be essential personnel and given special permission to continue our pastoral visits to the juvenile detention centers they serve.

SYS Director Franchelle Lee said that, while the kids have good days and bad days, mostly they’re handling the current crisis situation well.

“The lack of parent visitation has been very difficult on the families so the deacons ability to visit has been of some consolation,” she said. “The facilities are also trying to offset the lack of contact with increased opportunities for phone calls home.”

The ministry has distributed word search/puzzle books, which Lee said “was very uplifting for the kids.” They have also been able to give them composition books that were donated.

“As you know they are very creative poets, songwriters and artists so this was also a welcomed addition,” she said.

Lee said SYS volunteers have had to find creative ways to continue ministering to the youth without entering the facilities.

“One example is their implementation of newsletters. They include Bible reflections, Bible trivia, words of encouragement and a few fun activities,” she said. “With everything going on, these amazing adults did not forget about [these vulnerable people].”

For Correctional Ministries, continuing their mission has posed many challenges.

Deacon Alvin Lovelady, director of the ministry, said both the Harris County and Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) jails went into lockdown in early March with Texas Governor Greg Abbott calling for a statewide closure for volunteers and visitors alike.

“For a while the offenders that have been trained as field ministers through the program at the Darrington units were allowed to provide a service for the men based on their denomination,” he said. “That was stopped after two weeks to keep the men and women from gathering into large groups.”

Then, on April 13, Deacon Lovelady received a phone call from Chaplain Timothy Jones, the head of chaplaincy with TDCJ, asking if he could provide them with a DVD for them to copy that they could distribute to the entire state for viewing.

“No prison has access to the internet that a prisoner can watch, so there’s no way to put the livestream on their TVs,” Deacon Lovelady said.

After a number of challenges and technical difficulties, Deacon Lovelady met with Ralph Ambuehl, one of the volunteers from the Jester III unit in Richmond, and received two copies of Easter Sunday Mass led by Father Dat Hoang, pastor St. Faustina Catholic Church in Fulshear. Lovelady drove it to TDCJ Headquarters in Huntsville for them to duplicate and send to all the units in Texas.

He added there are several other dioceses around the state — San Antonio and Austin for example — who have priests who are recording their Masses for TDCJ which will be ready for them over the next few weeks.

“It has become a joint effort from several Correctional Ministries offices around the state to provide services for the men and women incarcerated in TDCJ,” he said. “Our combined efforts will make sure these men and women who have become closely involved with their Church and have deepened their faith while serving time will not go without some connection to their love for Christ. Where there is a desire, God will find a way.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made the family unit more vulnerable. Not only are families worried to lose loved ones to the coronavirus, but it has put the entire family unit together for prolongued periods of time in a continuosly stressful situation.

Law enforcement officials and advocates have seen a spike in domestic violence calls because victims are in a uniquely vulnerable position due to stay-at-home orders and isolation.

Elsa Aguilera, associate director with the Family Life Transitions branch of Family Life Ministry, said at the very beginning of the “Stay-At-Home” order she created a document with listings of agencies with crisis hotlines numbers, including child, elder and animal abuse numbers.

She added they are currently finalizing a schedule for a Day of Reflection healing series titled the “New Landscape of Grieving.”

“It’s for people who have lost a loved one during this pandemic,” she said. “The intention is to offer them quarterly. I have not determined if it will be in-person or if we will go the streaming option. I am still evaluating that aspect.”

Another project they are working on is called “Embracing Transition Series,” which is more of a professional training/formation event for parish staff.
“The intention is that more parish staff gets familiar with protocols in areas we serve and community resources,” she said. “This will be offered via webinars.”