Trained volunteers provide emotional and spiritual care during the COVID–19 pandemic.
Silence can be deafening.
Just ask an Emotional and Spiritual Care (ESC) specialist who is trying to connect with a stranger on the other end of a HOPEline call.
“If there’s a silence, I don’t know whether they’ve become emotionally down,” says Marie Cole. Alluding to a time when such meetings took place in the same room, she continued, “If I’m in a one–on–one with them, I can see their body language. It means a lot.”
Today’s COVID–19 restrictions keep ESC specialists like Cole and her callers at a safe but frustrating distance. Mandated guidelines have cloaked subtle clues.
Nonetheless, this dedicated volunteer, based in Sidney, N.Y., persists. As Cole sits in her living room recliner with a colorful knitted throw behind her head, she listens carefully on her phone and, through her mind’s eye, sees the tears, frowns or exuberant smiles on people’s faces.
What started as a small group of volunteers on phones in the USA Southern Territory has since blossomed into 1–800 HOPEline, a network of volunteers in every territory who field many calls every day from across the nation.
“We are not counselors,” says Cole, who started volunteering for The Salvation Army in 2006 in response to floods in Sidney. After receiving her Emergency Disaster Services training in Syracuse, N.Y., she was deployed to various hurricane sites around the United States, including Superstorm Sandy in New York City and surrounding areas.
“I really love what I’m doing. When the silence comes, I try to get them to open up so I can find out what they need. I try to understand if they’re going to need financial assistance, food, clothing or housing.” Cole’s soft voice is disarming. Her kind words can easily fill awkward silences. She calms, encourages, and lovingly cajoles her callers into staying engaged.
“I really like helping people; being able to give them some comfort; helping them to realize that they really are not alone. They want somebody to listen. There are many repeat callers who feel alone; they are confused about what they can do and what they can’t do.”
Cole remembers a woman who questioned why she had to wear a mask. “‘Why do I have to do that? I have trouble breathing,’ she said. So, we talked through that because, it is hard; we’re not used to doing all that.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Cole has spoken to callers from Chicago to California, and from young to old. Regardless of their station in life, their common thread is fear.
“Nighttime is hard because people are alone. Some older people can get Sundown Syndrome and they are afraid at nighttime,” says Cole. She refers to a state of confusion some people experience that typically begins with late afternoon shadows and continues into the night. It can cause anxiety or aggression or cause people to pace or wander.
“One young man was afraid he might go back to doing drugs,” she says. “So, we talked a lot about that for a while and I recommended he go to The Salvation Army because they have a wonderful rehab program.”
Her work keeps her busy, despite having a husband who is recovering from surgery. “I had been up until midnight taking calls almost every night. When I wake up in the morning, there are three to four missed calls that came in the middle of the night.” She has since made 9:30 p.m. her new bedtime. “When my husband is back on his feet, I’ll probably be able to pick back up again,” she says.
Stories from the HOPEline
Other specialists have also connected with callers and helped meet their variety of spiritual, emotional, and practical needs. The following are just a few examples.
Living in the ‘War Zone’
Dan, an ESC specialist, receives a call one night from a woman who lives in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She has just come home from the grocery store, which she refers to as a “war zone.” She calls because she needs someone to talk to. She speaks about people’s hysteria and the distrust she has for the news media.
While spending about 15 minutes on the phone with her, Dan learns among other things that she is a Christian. She explains that she misses her church, which is quite a distance from her home. She tells him about someone who is a family member of a friend of hers who is ill and who does not know Jesus. “I asked her if I could pray for her, her friend, and her friend’s family member and she agreed. We had a nice time of prayer after which she let me know that she felt better,” says Dan.
Help after a bipolar episode
On another night, Specialist Major Margaret McGourn answers a call from a woman in Chicago. “She said she just wanted to talk,” says McGourn. “That made me happy.” The woman had lost her job as a pharmaceutical tech due to a bipolar disorder episode. “She had interviewed for a new job but had not heard back and was discouraged. We did a mock interview and I was able to help her explain being let go from her previous job. At the end of the call she was so much more upbeat and seemed even hopeful about her future. She was happy for me to pray with her.”
Recovering from depression
Lt. Colonel Edith Pigford speaks to a 19–year–old woman from Orange, Calif. “She was experiencing depression and wanted spiritual help,” says Pigford. “She was pleased to find the free line since other counseling lines were not. She needed someone to talk to.”
However, as the call progresses, the woman and Edith discover that they have different definitions for spiritual help. “She was raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW) but left at 16 due to a demanding and critical stepfather. She spoke of the expectations and rules, and her father pushing her to do things.
“She asked about my life. I spoke of my journey, the example of my parents and other family members, and acknowledged my trust in God, His gift of salvation, and my acceptance of that gift. She said that in all her years as a JW, she never saw or experienced such a relationship. I gave her the address of the nearest corps and told her that someone would be there to speak to her further, if she wished. We closed the conversation with her appreciation for my promise to pray for her and my reminder that God truly does love her.”
A soldier’s story
Pigford receives a call one Sunday from a Salvation Army soldier in the Western Territory. “She called just to talk to someone about her feelings,” says Pigford. “She appreciates her corps officers but does not want to burden them because she knows that they are doing all the social work and meal service.”
The woman who writes notes and makes weekly calls to people in the corps, tells Pigford, “I feel guilty for just wanting someone to call me.”
Since the pandemic hit, the woman and her adult disabled son have sheltered in place. “Due to the closure of the agencies that would have provided services to her son, they have been basically locked in her house since March,” says Pigford.
“The soldier misses the interaction and worship at the corps. She appreciates the video ministry but feels guilty about being depressed. Her daily schedule is gradually falling apart, especially due to her son’s lack of regular activities. I encouraged her to pause each day in the Word and give thanks for God’s faithfulness. I told her that since March, I have been writing down song titles each day that have come to mind. It has become my journal of His faithfulness.”
For Pigford, the encounter is a wakeup call. “It points out to me that there are not just people in need of food due to being furloughed from their jobs who are hurting, but there are those in our own church and fellowship who are feeling out of touch and wondering what the future holds. The video ministry in the territory is helpful, but when people feel disconnected from their local congregation, that feeling of loss can lead to depression.
“What a brave, faithful soldier she is to reach out in honesty for help.”
The short term plan for the HOPEline is to keep it open through the end of November. Emotional and Spiritual Care is a vital tool in the aftermath of a disaster.