Veterans Voice: Priest offers comfort at VA hospital in time of coronavirus

The Rev. TJ Varghese, of St. Luke Parish in Barrington, is donning protective gear and bringing spiritual assistance to the patients and clinicians at the VA Medical Center in Providence.

In this time of crisis, many people have been stepping forward to help health-care workers on the front line.

While the public is aware of donations from many generous corporations, the quiet contributions can go unnoticed. Yet artists and construction crews have donated N95 masks that they use on their jobs. Girl Scout troops have generously donated cookies.

And there are people like the Rev. TJ Varghese of St. Luke Parish in Barrington, who is donning protective gear and bringing spiritual assistance to the patients and clinicians at the VA Medical Center in Providence.

Father Varghese says he brings an attentive ear to people under stress and reassures them that God is listening to their prayers.

“I just go, walk around, and ask how they are doing. ’Is everything okay? Do you need any help, or special prayers?’”

Father Varghese visits different floors, the nursing stations, the emergency room and intensive care unit. He is there to offer quiet comfort, or to render spiritual aid.

Everyone in the hospital is under stress at the moment. Visitor restrictions because of the coronavirus leave patients isolated and staff in fear of infection.

“There are a lot of questions,” Father Varghese says, but he redirects patents’ fear into positive action. “I tell them this is a time for spiritual charity, especially to pray for the ill or the sick, to pray for the health professionals — the doctors, the nurses, the first responders.

“We can all work together and we can face the fear with the help of the divine, the greatest physician — that’s our Lord.”

Father Varghese’s ministry at the VA Medical Center began six years ago, when the hospital’s chief chaplain heard about the private counseling he had been giving. The chaplain asked whether Varghese would be interested in helping on a regular basis.

With the approval of the Diocese of Providence, Father Varghese began donating five or six hours a week at the hospital, depending on the need, in addition to his full-time position as a parish priest.

Father Varghese’s regular presence at the VA also makes him a friendly, welcoming face to homeless veterans.

On a regular Friday night before the COVID-19 outbreak, Father Varghese would join a few dozen volunteers in Providence to distribute donated toiletries, food, clothing and blankets to those in need.

The volunteers, hailing from all parts of the state, assemble in the chancery parking lot near the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul. One week it’s a group called “The Breadlines” who volunteer, and on an alternating week, it’s the “And You Fed Me” ministry.

As many as 300 people gather for food and clothing each Friday night. Since public-aid checks are mailed the first week of the month, the volunteers always anticipate a surge in attendance at the end of the month, when those who rely on public assistance see their resources waning.

Father Varghese sometimes recognizes a veteran in the line, and is glad that he is able to provide a special welcome.

“They feel comfortable talking to me,” he says. “They know that I will listen to them.”

He tells them to feel welcome and accept the gifts of food and clothing.

“You have fought for our country,” he says. “You fought for our liberties, and now it is a time for us to help you.”

Just like the New Testament story of the loaves and fishes that Father Varghese preaches, the group never seems to run out of food or clothing, regardless of the size of the crowd. In fact, Father Varghese says, there are sometimes even leftovers, which are then shared with Emmanuel House, a homeless shelter on Public Street run by the Diocese.

While this ministry is on hiatus until the public health crisis is over, Father Varghese will remain busy. He also serves as chaplain for the Rhode Island State Police; the West Glocester, Chepachet, and Harmony Fire Districts; and the Glocester Police Department.

Father Varghese says he receives so much joy and satisfaction from his work. While the physical and emotional demands of long hours of spiritual counseling are many, he is committed to “do something for the people” each day. Like a warrior going on the battlefield, Father Varghese knows that serving others is his life’s mission.

The unsung heroes of the coronavirus struggle are many, too. Quiet contributions from people stepping forward with their gifts of time, talent and expertise to help veterans — and the community at large — offer hope and assistance to us all.

Do you know a veteran with an interesting story? Do you offer a program or service focus on serving retired military? Email Mary K. Talbot at ThoseWhoServedAmerica@gmail.com.

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