[Episcopal News Service]
A California Episcopal congregation's simple, ongoing telephone outreach ministry is helping connect and support members in the wake of September 11. The ministry has been especially meaningful for one of its volunteers, whose New York City-based company lost 87 people when the World Trade Center collapsed.
TeleCare is a program of St. Augustine-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica. Every six months for the past three years, TeleCare volunteers have phoned each of the congregation's 250 member families, and said, 'We're just calling to see how you are and whether there's anything you want us to pray for,' according to Gretchen Haight of Brentwood, California. A hospital chaplain, she is TeleCare's coordinator.
Two three-member volunteer teams spend one hour one evening a month at the church, making calls and then praying together for each person contacted, naming each joy and concern. TeleCare 'is a quiet ministry, but it has mattered a lot,' Haight said. It helps keep St. Augustine's far-flung, busy urban congregants connected, and people 'appreciate the call, often saying it came just when they needed it.'
Since September 11, the church has held special services, sponsored a weekend family retreat and, on October 10, activated its fall round of TeleCare calls. The three-member team 'on duty' included Gretchen Haight and her husband, Peter.
President of the California office of Fiduciary Trust Company, Peter Haight had worked on the 94th floor of Two World Trade Center in New York before transferring to the Los Angeles office in 1984. He counts 25 close friends and colleagues among the company's 87 employees lost but 560 employees survived.
The three-member TeleCare calling team reached about 40 families in all on October 10. 'About half the people I talked to knew that I'd lost friends, and they were asking all about me,' Peter Haight said. 'It was very much a two-way thing. I felt supported by them, and I was really glad to be able to reach out as part of a prayer ministry. For me, it was very helpful.'
'Usually we get an answering machine two times out of three, but this time, almost everyone was home,' reported Gretchen Haight. 'Everyone appreciated the connection.'
The callers discovered that 'the events of these past weeks weave in and out of our personal lives,' she said. For example, one person asked prayers 'for all my friends in New York, and for Grandma, who is in a nursing home,' Peter Haight said. Another, who'd struggled with a heavy workload for a couple of years, was feeling all the more weighed down by the September 11 crisis.
Others asked prayers for innocent Afghans … for a friend who'd just been fired … for hearts 'open to what is occurring day by day.'
Dr. Margaret Kornfeld, a pastoral counselor who addressed the National Council of Churches Executive Board in New York City on October 1, cited TeleCare as a good example of existing ministry 'infrastructure' that effectively meets needs in extraordinary times. She urged religious leaders 'to find out what's already working in your communions' and build on it in response to the current crisis.
Gretchen Haight said she was really glad TeleCare was already well established before September 11. 'If we had thought now to set up TeleCare, it might have felt intrusive at worst and odd at best. In each round of calling during the past three years, people have become more familiar with it.
'The first time we called, we were explaining what TeleCare was. Each time, there has been more acceptance of TeleCare as a way of communicating.' With the September 11 crisis, she said, 'there's been another jump in people's openness. They've been broken open by anxiety and needing help, and are more willing to talk about it and to ask for prayers.'
She added, 'I don't want people to think it's a really big thing. It's low maintenance. That's the nice part. It's how I think we ought to live -checking in with people in your community. Its beauty is in its total simplicity and lack of presumption.'