Sailors on the USS WASP watch as the USS COMFORT passes by, returning to Norfolk from New York City. Photo courtesy of Derek Vande Slunt.

Serving Christ in the Midst of a Pandemic

Over the last few months, our alumni and students have been working hard to meet the needs of their congregations and communities in crisis. Among them are those working on the front lines of the pandemic as chaplains.

M.Div. student Brianne Christiansen is completing a round of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at a hospital in Fayetteville, AR. Although she feels called to be a pastor, she decided to do CPE for an internship, never imagining it would coincide with a global pandemic.

“I have a deep sense that this is where I’m supposed to be,” she says. “There are so many Gospel stories where Jesus walks toward people who are sick. That’s always the work of the chaplain, but it feels especially poignant when no one else can be there right now, not even family.”

One night Brianne was asked to facilitate a FaceTime call between a COVID-19 patient and his daughter. Strapping on her gown, N95 mask, gloves, and face shield, she carried an iPad into the room so the daughter could pray for and talk to her father. Although he was on a ventilator and couldn’t respond, the daughter asked Brianne to hold her father’s hand and write a message on his whiteboard to see when he woke up. The young woman’s mother had died from COVID-19 just days before.

“You hope the Holy Spirit is moving as you try to communicate through so many layers,” Brianne says. “You are the conduit of their love for the patient.”

A challenge of the pandemic is that the number of visitors is severely limited, leaving patients without usual support systems by their bedside, explains Ruth Estell, a 2018 graduate working in Saginaw, MI. Chaplains are increasing phone calls to family members and churches to keep people informed and also acting as stand-ins when patients need a comforting presence by their side.

Paige Puguh (WTS ‘16) working in Neenah, WI, frequently needs to give assurance to patients that their communities are not going to disappear.

“The lack of physical church and not being able to see or touch loved ones is creating so much loneliness that people are starting to doubt there will be an end and that those communities will still be there when this is over,” she says.

Prior to the pandemic, “I would offer to place a hand on someone’s shoulder or hold their hand during prayer,” says Alyssa Muehmel, a 2020 M.Div. graduate whose internship at Holland Hospital ended in May. Now, chaplains are lucky if they’re allowed in the same room, with many having to do phone calls and online Zoom or FaceTime visits instead.

Eric Robbert (WTS ‘19) works in the trauma units and ER at a large Illinois hospital, spending much of his time on the phone with people whose family member is dying or has already passed away. “This is teaching me anew the power of a thoughtful word,” he says.

With 20+ years in hospital ministry, Jan Johnson (WTS ‘17) found herself feeling helpless and lost as the “pandemic wilderness” left her unable to offer a physical presence of comfort to dying COVID-19 patients and their families at Mercy Health in Muskegon, MI. She found guidance in the words of Psalm 139 and, with the Lord’s strength, she has been able to offer blessings to those in need. (you can read her reflection at )

Josh Westhouse (2019 Graduate)

Josh Westhouse (WTS ‘19) in Grand Rapids, MI and Holly Teitsma (WTS ‘17) in Houston, TX are caring for people’s mental health through the pandemic.

Josh works with people who have needs around bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. He is also on a Special Care Unit for those who are positive for COVID-19 and need inpatient behavioral health services.

“The care of presence and being with someone as they are in pain is requiring more creativity,” says Josh. This includes things like teletherapy and providing smaller in-person group therapy sessions.

“People feel fatigue of all sorts and need to have an empathetic presence. As a chaplain, my knowledge, insight, understanding, body language, and spirituality are all ways I believe God uses me to build an emotional connection with another. It reminds me of a phrase I heard in seminary that sticks with me:  the image of God seeing the image of God in another.

Without the usual social cues from body language, Josh is asking more questions to understand how the person is feeling. This has brought a depth to conversations he wasn’t expecting.

Holly Teitsma (2017 Graduate)

For Holly, the act of transitioning online was tough at first because her practice was resistant. Luckily, she had been personally preparing as she became aware of the worsening pandemic the end of February. This preparation helped her bless others in her practice through training them on the new software.

“It was exhausting,” she admits, “But, two months into the process, I am finally starting to feel the integration of all the new.”

“I have been tremendously grateful, though, that prayer can be a vital component of telehealth sessions with my faith-oriented clients. It sustains us and reminds us that some things haven’t changed…that God is our constant.”

Holly works with a number of clergy clients, many of whom need encouragement as they deal with sick congregants, navigate online worship, and balance opinions among their leadership teams. Interestingly, she has noticed that some clergy who usually suffer from anxiety are actually thriving at home because they have less physical demands on them and can engage at a more manageable pace. This discovery has motivated one of Holly’s clients to figure out how to live out her call in ways that better honor who she is.

New graduate Jennifer VanCleve (WTS ’20) works as a PRN (on-call) chaplain at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where they are doing a lot of COVID-19 research. She also works in two behavioral/psych hospitals in Omaha, NE, which has provided real challenges. “The psych hospitals are full. People are not dealing well with the quarantining. If you do deal with depression or suicidal ideation, it is compounded tenfold. And they can’t have visitors,” she says.

Jennifer Van Cleve (upper right) (2020 graduate)

“The staff are being affected by this crisis, too,” Jennifer adds. “Prior to COVID we didn’t really minister to staff, but now we do. It’s made chaplaincy a more well-rounded position, actually.”

While this season has had many challenges, there have been blessings as well. Many chaplains have noticed increased teamwork and camaraderie with their hospital staff, and local communities have rallied around healthcare workers by donating meals, masks, and even organizing prayers from the hospital parking lot. The role of spiritual care in a crisis is being appreciated like never before.

Derek Vande Slunt (WTS ‘00) is a chaplain on the USS Wasp naval aircraft carrier. Their worship services have doubled in size with at least one adult baptism since the pandemic

started. “Many who have neglected their faith foundations are turning back to those foundations during this time.”

For Mike Weaver (WTS ‘09), a hospice chaplain on the Michigan lakeshore who has been working from home and taking care of his kids, this experience has taught him love of neighbor in a new way. “Most of the time I have felt like I am not doing my job because I can’t. It’s been a big struggle. I have really had to focus on doing what I can and being satisfied that it is enough,” he shares. “The Spirit has been helping me grow in humble submission to love of neighbor and to hold loosely to my own wants and desires.”

Recent graduate Alyssa Muehmel has had her call to chaplaincy solidified through her experience at Holland Hospital and has accepted a residency in Ann Arbor, MI. “I have seen that with God’s help I’m able to show up in a crisis. I didn’t think of myself as a person with that skill set before.”

Most chaplains will be grappling with the effects of the pandemic for a long time. As they are asked to steward others’ pain, chaplains are also experiencing heartaches and anxieties as well. Some are concerned about bringing the virus home to their own families as they continue to meet in-person with patients. Others are struggling with lack of sleep and their own grief over all the uncertainties.

Eric Robbert shared this story: “A patient decided, after four weeks of struggling with COVID-19, to die. The kindness, sincerity, and clarity of this decision struck our staff. I watched the patient struggle to breathe for hours and prayed for comfort and peace, and then I called the family when the patient died. Our staff was uniquely impacted by this person, whom we only knew in this brief way. I’m still journeying with this story and trying to understand what it means to me and how it impacts my view of life and dying well.”

Jennifer Van Cleve says that at times working as a chaplain does get sad. “It’s not without its trauma, but for every sad story, you see the hand of God. I’ve seen God move mountains. Because of HIPAA laws, I can’t tell all these stories, but God is alive and active and incredibly powerful.

“This has been hard,” admits Ruth Estell. “It is tempting to try to convince myself and others that everything is just fine, but it’s not just fine. There has been so much loss and sorrow in connection to this pandemic. The laments in the Psalms have been especially meaningful to me. Coming face to face with my own weakness and need during this time has caused me to seek God and cling to God all the more.”

Paige Puguh says if you sense the call, don’t let this time deter you from becoming a chaplain. “As scary as it is, it’s been a great learning experience,” she says. “For one reason or another, chaplaincy finds its heart in times like this.”

Senior M.Div. student Ruth Estell may be what’s called an “old soul,” but don’t be fooled by her mild manner.

Born to RCA missionary parents and raised in Taiwan, Ruth came to the States to earn her undergrad and graduate degrees from Wheaton College, and then returned to China to teach English.

Ruth with children from the group home in Taiwan

After ten years, she heard about an opportunity to work and live in a home for children and adults with disabilities in Taiwan. She jumped at the chance to do more ministry and Bible teaching.

In Taiwan, Ruth volunteered to teach an English Bible study in a men’s maximum security prison—with no guards in the room.

“At first I wasn’t so sure,” she admits, “but I ended up loving it. The men were very respectful and appreciated that I was willing to come there.”

She saw God at work, even witnessing some men get baptized and grow in their faith.

Ruth planned to take over for the director of the group home in Taiwan, but after a year and a half, the woman grew inexplicably hostile toward her.

Ruth started to believe the negative things her teammate was saying about her, and for the first time in her life, she doubted if God really loved her. She found herself in a downward spiral emotionally, spiritually, and physically. After praying about what to do, she knew she had to leave the mission field.

She returned to the U.S. to live with her mother, who had retired to Zeeland, MI. Their family had spent many summers on furlough in the RCA mission houses in Holland, so Ruth knew a lot of people in the West Michigan area.

“When I came back, I thought I was done serving God forever,” Ruth admits.“I would have been content to do whatever just to pay the bills.”

However, many people who knew her story were praying for her, and many reached out with love and support. Some shared their own stories of being hurt by brothers and sisters in the church.

A lot of healing took place, and Ruth realized that she still had a deep desire to serve God in her work. As she began to feel a call to chaplaincy, she knew she would need a Master of Divinity, and that led her to Western Theological Seminary.

Two and a half years later, Ruth is on track to graduate this May. She hopes to work as a chaplain in a retirement home or hospital.

“I am a third culture kid,” she says, “and Chinese culture respects the elderly, so perhaps that infiltrated my heart. I love the elderly.”

Two of Ruth’s internships have been at retirement homes, but she also completed a year of church ministry and one summer term of Clinical Pastoral Education at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, where she worked with children and adolescents and at a women’s addiction recovery residential house.

“My abilities and confidence have grown,” she shares. “Children and adolescents are very honest. I have dealt with a lot of anger but also some very honest questions. You don’t always have the answers, but you can be there and listen to them.”

This year, Ruth is interning at Holland Hospital, where God is growing a love for the stranger in her. Many times she can only have one or two conversations with patients before they leave the hospital.

Harp class, led by Dr. Carol Bechtel

Ruth is part of a group of musicians that WTS professor Dr. Carol Bechtel is teaching to play the harp. At the hospital, Ruth plays the harp therapeutically—a ministry that can touch some patients and families in a special way.

“One lady I visited was very formal when I went in as the chaplain. I could tell she highly respected the clergy,” recalls Ruth. “She thanked me for coming and asked me to pray but didn’t have much to say. Later I came in just to play the harp, and soon she started sharing about her diagnosis, how she was feeling, her family… More pastoral care was done when I wasn’t there as the ‘official’ chaplain.”

Other times, patients are unresponsive or restless, and the harp music puts a calm over the room and the family. Sometimes the music frees people to have a good cry.

“I can’t answer ‘Why would God let this happen?’ or ‘Why don’t I feel God’s presence?” but I can acknowledge feelings and encourage people to reach out to God,” Ruth says. “Sometimes I run out of words, and then the music lets them rest in that.”

If people come from a Christian background, hymns remind them of times God spoke into their lives. Recently a dying patient began singing along to the hymns Ruth was playing on her harp, creating a beautiful moment that touched the family deeply. Later they asked her to play at his funeral.

Being able to play the harp for people is a “tool in my tool box,” Ruth says. “It’s just another way to care for people.”

Ruth is also grateful for Dr. Suzanne McDonald’s classes on “Aging and Dementia” and eschatology. These classes have helped her to establish a theological foundation and to understand how to care for people at the end of life.

“What I like about Western is that it’s not all about heady, intellectual knowledge,” she shares. “The professors realize they’re preparing us for serving actual people. It has kept me humble.”

Thinking ahead to graduation, Ruth says, “I think chaplaincy will be a good fit for the passions and gifts God has given me. Retirement home, hospital, hospice…I’m open to wherever God might lead.”

The Van Raalte Fellowship is a new partnership between Western Theological Seminary, 3sixty ministries (a community development non-profit), Pillar Church, and All Saints Anglican Church. The two-year fellowship allows students to earn internship credit, participate in a mentored peer group, and worship with Pillar Church and All Saints Anglican Church while helping to connect the church with opportunities for justice in the city of Holland.

Three of this year’s Van Raalte Fellows are first-year seminary students Alisha Riepma, Katie Alley, and Leah Wielenga.

A week in the life of a Van Raalte Fellow involves attending classes at WTS, meeting in a peer group and individually with Rev. Jenna Brandsen ‘15, pastor of formation for mission at Pillar Church, and having lots of conversations with community members and neighbors. At least once a week, the fellows eat at the Community Kitchen at WTS. On Sundays, they work as interns at Pillar Church, and Katie helps with the children’s ministry. They can also attend morning and evening prayers at All Saints Anglican Church throughout the week.

Every other Sunday, the fellows host dinner at Alisha’s house, inviting members of the Holland community to eat with them. Recently they were joined by two Holland police officers and got to hear about their experience in the city. Another evening, they invited a student who lives at the Friendship House to talk about intentional communities at the seminary. Soon they hope to invite a woman who has her MSW and is living in low-income housing doing grassroots social work in Holland.

Their goal is “to live outward-focused lives.” An important focus of the internship is living right in the neighborhood they serve. Each week they walk through the city and pray to have conversations with their neighbors.

“Something has changed within me to expect conversations with people, to seek out those conversations, and to find ways that I can really know my neighbors,” shares Leah.

One of these conversations happened when Leah noticed a neighbor sweeping up a broken bottle on the sidewalk. She stopped to chat and he explained that when underage drinkers don’t want to get caught with an open container, they throw it out of their car. In the past year, three neighborhood dogs had to be put down because of serious infections in their cut paws.

She quickly discovered that her new friend, Ed, was the neighborhood go-to-guy. He pointed out who lived where and shared that he used to make pots of coffee for the police officers and firemen in the area who would come and chat in his driveway. One time, he helped a woman who was being harassed. He already knew the police were looking for a suspect who had harassed other women, so he was able to put her in contact with them to help catch the guy.

“Community development is not about always having big plans and big goals,” explains Leah. “It’s about knowing what matters to people and knowing what people have to offer and care to invest.”

The fellows’ goal is to connect people to their communities and specifically to help the church connect to the city in a real, meaningful way.

“It’s like there are underground cords connecting people already, but they just don’t know they’re there. It’s our job to unearth them,” Leah shares.

Alisha Riepma

Alisha Riepma

Katie Alley

Katie Alley

Leah Wielenga

Leah Wielenga

One way Katie gets to know her neighborhood is by walking everywhere she goes and shopping at the stores closest to her home. That way she makes sure her mind is always focused on who the people are around her.

This internship has caused Katie to form friendships with neighbors like the greeters at her local Meijer store, the workers at Kilwins where she gets a weekly ice cream cone, and her mailman.

“Being in an internship that says, ‘your job is to notice’ has changed my mindset to recognize that these are members of my community who are often overlooked, they are my neighbors, and I benefit from their work, so I want to know them,” she explains.

Alisha has noticed that topics from her classes at WTS spill over into her life as a Van Raalte Fellow. Whether at church or in a conversation at the Community Kitchen, she has “a good theological framework.”

For Katie, the internship has stripped away a lot of preconceived notions about people and has caused her to ask different questions in class.

Because the fellowship is so new, there is a lot of openness and flexibility for the fellows to explore different passions. Katie has developed a passion for one-on-one connections that have led her to pursue chaplaincy. She is working with Jenna to visit shut-ins through Pillar Church. Leah is realizing that it is easy for her to connect with people who are more “rough around the edges.” She hopes to use her passion for drama and improv to plan some improv workshops in the community. Alisha is thinking deeply about what church could look like with a more community-oriented mindset.

Katie recommends the internship for students who feel called but don’t know what they want to do yet, because it allows the chance to converse with lots of different people and be involved in different types of ministry.

“The leadership has been really excellent. I feel like we are learning from people who genuinely care about us, and the city, and the church,” Katie shares.

Above all, the fellows are humbled by the work God is already doing in the city of Holland.

“It’s so easy to think I’m going to bring Jesus into the Community Kitchen, and then I’ve been so surprised and proven wrong that Jesus is already there,” shares Katie. “Every time we sit and eat with some new friends, I think, ‘maybe this person doesn’t know the Lord,’ but then we start having conversations and they know more about the Bible than we do! Or they invite us to church! It’s like a really beautiful un-learning of things, where God keeps showing me where I’ve been wrong the whole time. It’s been exciting and so humbling.”

“It’s not enjoyable in the moment to be wrong,” agrees Alisha,“But later it’s enjoyable to know that God is so much bigger than what I perceive things to be, and He’s at work everywhere and in ways more expansive than I imagine.”



Check out the Housing page for more info about the Van Raalte Fellowship.