Earlier this year, the Rev. Elizabeth Macaulay, lead pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester, and member Daphne Soleil took part in a Zoom meeting and listened as health care workers from the church described personal stories and the toll in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
One ICU physician talked about the frustration of having to tell family members, over and over again, that they couldn't visit their sick and bedridden relative. A family physician described turning away disappointed patients who sought "mitigating treatments" for COVID-19. They heard about the long hours, the exhaustion, and the personal anguish and helplessness in the face of so much death.
But from that discussion emerged a plan for a new "Community Healers" ministry focused on health care workers.
At the heart of the church's effort: a simple desire to say "thank you" to all involved in the yearlong fight, from doctors and nurses, to food service workers and cleaning staff, to children who stayed home from school to avoid spreading the virus.
"What I've experienced working with people who have gone through traumatic situations (is that) being seen, having the pain acknowledged, being thanked (helps)," Macaulay said.
"You think about people going up to veterans and saying, 'Thank you for service.' That's what we're trying to do this Sunday," she added.
The interfaith service is set for 11 a.m. Sunday in the church's parking lot. People will write on cards the names of people they want to thank, and those names will be read at the end of the service. As they are being read, brightly colored crepe paper representing various groups will be unfurled and crisscross the parking lot.
More than a year into the pandemic, death rates and hospitalizations are declining in the U.S. as more and more people get vaccinated. But the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants has caused an uptick in some cities and communities.
Even before the pandemic struck, health care workers were known to be at risk for anxiety, depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Under usual working conditions, according to the medical journal Lancet, severe burnout syndrome affects as many as 33% of critical care nurses and up to 45% of critical care physicians. Those trends will be exacerbated by the pandemic, experts say.
A Morning Consult survey found that 26% of U.S. health care workers have considered leaving their jobs since the pandemic started. Among those, 14% say COVID-19 has left them thinking that they might leave the health care profession altogether.
"I've heard alarming numbers about people leaving the profession and burnout," said Soleil, leader of the Community Healers ministry. "I know that it will only get worse."
Soleil understands the trauma that health care professionals are going through. A 20-year nurse, Soleil left her job as a home health care nurse last October, after putting in 80-hour weeks and seeing her own health deteriorate.
Soleil said she isn't certain that the ministry she leads will be helpful to health care workers, but she feels the need to do something.
"If we weren't in the midst of a crisis, I would have done a needs assessment before proposing this program," she said. "I feel like there's an earthquake that just happened. And I'm going to try to save the first person I run into."
Soleil said one idea she proposed was a Zoom call where health care workers could unload their frustrations and anguish. But the health care workers on the church committee said "they were too exhausted for that."
"And I said, 'Well, how about a letter?' 'Yeah, that would be nice,' " Soleil recalled members saying.
The ministry also produced a document called "How to Help a Health Care Worker." In addition to letters of encouragement, the team plans to send 2-inch crocheted pocket prayer circles to workers, as a reminder that they are not alone and have the community's support.
The team is also creating a "virtual healing garden" with links to sacred music, art and prayer cues, yoga lessons and other things "nourishing to the soul," Soleil said. The church has designated a physical garden located in the center of the U-shaped building as a "quiet, reflective space" for workers. It will include flowers, various native plants, and a labyrinth.
It's not an accident that Christ United Methodist Church is spearheading such a ministry. Macaulay estimates that 30% of its 1,000-member congregation are engaged in the health care field. Located in the middle of downtown Rochester, the church practically exists in the shadow of Mayo Clinic.
"We hold down a city block in the middle of Rochester. And we believe strongly that we're called to minister from this specific location in the ways that we can," Macaulay said.