We all want and need heroes. From our earliest age, we naturally look up to people, are inspired by them, and want to follow their example. When we see the extraordinary sacrifice of others, it encourages us to do the same.
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic,” said all-time tennis great Arthur Ashe. “It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
We are seeing many examples of service heroism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Heroes are all around us in their great acts of sacrifice each and every day.
Our first thought of heroes is often of those who gave their lives on the battlefield or through great acts of courage that saved someone’s life. And indeed, they are genuine heroes. We rightfully honored those who sacrificed their lives in service to our country on Memorial Day.
I also think about the many unsung heroes all around us. In my own life, my parents are at the top of that list. They raised 13 children! We never lacked for a meal or shelter, and they put us all through Catholic schools on a government salary. Tuitions were less expensive, but it cost a pretty penny to send all of us to Our Lady of Lourdes, St. John’s, Holy Cross, Ursuline, Immaculata, and then over 52 years of Catholic college education. I will always appreciate the gift of my Catholic education, and I know Dad and Mom made many sacrifices through the years for all of us.
I think of all who have responded so selflessly to the health crisis, the nurses, doctors, and healthcare workers who risk their own health to tend to those suffering from COVID-19. I think of first responders who transport patients in addition to their always dangerous work going into difficult places to save people’s lives.
In this historic time, I think of teachers forced to adapt quickly to online learning as school facilities close. With school now taking place at home, parents recognize more than ever the hard work and sacrifices teachers make every day. I’ve had many parents tell me how challenging this has been and how much more they appreciate all that teachers do. In our current circumstances, many also do it while balancing the additional needs of their own families.
For me at Catholic Charities, I see and hear firsthand many other heroes. We have about 800 employees, with many of us telecommuting. I’m working from the rectory at St. Bartholomew’s where I live and rarely go into the office. We are doing our best to keep our services functioning and meet those in need at this difficult time. At the same time, about 350 of our employees are right there on the front lines, dealing directly with our clients and the needs of others every single day, and doing so at some risk to themselves.
I think of those working in our shelters where we normally serve about 1,600 people each night. That number is a little bit lower right now because we’re maintaining greater space, but our workers continue to go into the various shelters, spend time with clients, and make sure they have food to eat and a place to sleep.
The good news is that preventive measures are working. We do test often, but in recent testing at our shelter on New York Avenue, not one of our staff tested positive for the virus. Unfortunately, close to 25 or our clients did test positive, and we pray for their recovery. I’m encouraged that if we follow the recommended procedures – wear gloves, a mask and a gown, keep social distancing, wash our hands, etc. – we seem to be able to effectively protect ourselves.
I would also mention all of those who are serving meals. With jobs lost and workers furloughed, the need for food has grown exponentially. You may have seen news accounts of our programs – in Camp Springs at our Mona Center, at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, in Gaithersburg right next to Gaithersburg High School, and at the Basilica of the National Shrine. We are serving tens of thousands of meals, and we continue to look for ways to help. Those receiving food are so grateful to get enough to feed a family of four for five days and a hot meal to take home for that evening.
There are also health services, including those busy with telehealth right now. They may not always be on the scene, but they are spending time with those in need of medicine or shots or other services. One of our programs, the ACT program, works with families in need, particularly young people, and our staff is in direct contact with people in their homes. Again, the risk each time is a concern to all.
How does all this good happen amid such difficult circumstances? Heroes working together.
Our staff members jump right in. Those who are not working at our dental clinic because it has been closed are coming out to serve food. Volunteers step forward, and we’re always happy to have more. They want to make sure a “neighbor” just like them receives necessary sustenance. And donors make it all possible. I am overwhelmed by the number of people making extra efforts to support those in need through donations to Catholic Charities. I know many are making similar efforts to support their parishes and local businesses, all while dealing with uncertainty in their own lives.
Some of us naturally wonder where God is in this pandemic. As I’ve heard others say, I think God is present in our service and care for others. God is present in those on the front lines, doing the work that many of us can’t do, and doing it on our behalf. And God is present in those supporting the work through prayer and donations. Each time we help, we are responding to God’s voice.
As Pentecost Sunday is this coming weekend, I wanted to thank the Holy Spirit for calling us to do the work we do. The Holy Spirit guides the hearts of so many who work on our behalf. The Holy Spirit calls people to make a difference for those in need. The Holy Spirit says we are one family, the body of Christ, and we need to make sure that no one in that body is left behind.
May God bless you and all our heroes. They are right here in our own families and neighborhoods.
(Msgr. Enzler is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.)
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.