For the past year and a half, nurses, doctors, and other health care workers have been on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19 in Rhode Island hospitals. Out of the limelight, but alongside them, are hospital chaplains — staff members, usually members of the clergy, responsible for the spiritual care of patients, families, and coworkers.

Early on in the pandemic, Rev. Kate Perry, a multi-faith staff chaplain at Newport Hospital and other Lifespan facilities, cared for COVID-19 patients and others when their own loved ones couldn’t be at their bedside. And when necessary, she connected with those families through virtual calls, or “tele-chaplaincy.” As COVID cases ebbed this year, Perry was able to support more patients and families in person. 

With COVID-19 case numbers climbing again, Perry spoke with reporter Antonia Ayres-Brown about faith during hardship, and how her job has changed during the pandemic. This is her story, in her own words, edited for clarity.

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Rev. Kate Perry: It took a little while to adjust to not reaching out and putting my hand on someone's shoulder or shaking someone's hand. Often when you offer to pray, people reach out for your hands, and I'm just like “Ah [I can’t].” So that's been a little challenging.

I think, too, that in the tele-chaplaincy — when you're in someone's presence, you can more easily connect. That's obvious. And so it takes like two or three phone calls to kind of build that same rapport. It kind of goes back to that time, right? Like, it just takes a little more time for all of these things. And often you don't have the time.

It's not the same. And I think, in preparation for this conversation, I was thinking, have I noticed the difference in the depth of people's ability to cope based on kind of the experience of these last 18 months? And I think that I have —  not being able to gather and to be around people, not to have your family by your side, not to be able to offer memorial services or funeral services, or celebrate weddings or the birth of children. And these are things that really are filling and healing, and there's a lot of grief that's been put on hold. And that takes its toll.

There are a couple of different categories of people. There are many people, their faith has remained steadfast. Many people, their faith has been strengthened by this challenge, this trial.

And I think what's been fascinating are the number of people who really, you know, it's like fight or flight, right? You either grab really tightly to a thing that you have, or you just kind of release it, because you can't. And I think that that's been the same with faith, and the people who maybe have kind of released it have been able to explore a new depth.

I've had a lot of conversations with patients about, they feel like they're doubting. They feel like they’re kind of doubting now, or seeking, or searching for things that they felt really sure about before. And being able to speak with them to reframe it within the bigger faith realm, right? That asking questions or reflecting on experiences doesn't mean that you're losing faith. Sometimes it’s a maturing of your faith and belief that happens in these times.

One conversation that I have had repeatedly is, you know, people, we often ask ‘Why? Why is this happening in general? Why did this happen to me?’ And two things have come up because of the pandemic that have always been there but are a little more pronounced now.

And one is that sometimes the things that are happening to us aren't happening because of us. They're just things that happen.

And the other is that, asking ‘Why?’ — while that is naming a need that we have, it doesn't actually help with the helplessness that we feel. And so to kind of reframe the question from ‘Why is this happening to me?’ to ‘What am I going to do about it?’ or ‘What am I going to do with it? And how am I going to take this and reshape it into something that's meaningful and purposeful?’ I hear a lot in my work, and in my life, that everything happens for a reason. And I've heard that differently this year, that everything happens, and we give it a reason.

For us, you know, the pandemic doesn't really feel over. And so in that way, it's been challenging because it's been a trauma, and trying to address a trauma while you're in a trauma isn't very helpful.

I described it pretty early on as like, everywhere you went there was this refrigerator hum. And it was just anxiety kind of buzzing at the baseline. And every once in a while it would spike and you'd be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what we're feeling. Okay, like we've got to function, so it has to go back down.’

I don't think I would have wanted to know any of the things that I've learned in the last year and a half before it started. I think if I had come into this prepared in any sort of way, then I don't know that I would have done it. You know, I love the work. I love hospital chaplaincy. And I'm grateful to be here. I'm grateful to be having these experiences. But I can't imagine — a lot of staff people have said, ‘This isn't what I signed up for.’ You know, we signed up to help people, for sure. But these conditions aren't exactly what we signed up for. And so I can't imagine — I just don't know what would have been helpful to know before to even prepare for what we experienced.

One [story] that I fall on and hold to quite often is from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's in the book of Genesis, and it's about Jacob. He and his brother Esau have had this big to-do and they have been separated for a long time, and they're set to meet up at this river.

And that night, the night before the meetup, Jacob is awoken and he ends up wrestling with this being. Some call it God, some think it’s Esau. Some say ‘I don't know who it is, but he was wrestling anyway.’ And they're in this scrappy fight and Jacob's hip gets messed up. And he's limping, but still fighting. And he says, ‘I will not let go until you bless me.’

And that idea of kind of holding on despite injury, despite hardship, despite all of the things that just keep coming. This tenacity to just hang on, if we can just hang on and hang on together. Then, at the end of all of this, we will be something strong, beautiful, courageous, more courageous, more resilient, what have you. But it's the holding on.

This story was edited and condensed from an interview with Kate Perry, a staff chaplain at Newport Hospital and other Lifespan facilities.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio and a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at