Lately, Greg Walgenbach has been thinking a lot about a quote attributed to literary giant James Joyce.
Describing the Catholic Church, Joyce said, “Here comes everybody.”
COVID-19 has flipped that famous phrase upside down.
“Right now,” says Walgenbach, director of the Diocese of Orange Office of Life, Justice and Peace, “it’s like, ‘Here comes nobody.’ Nobody’s going to church.”
Although the situation is changing, with the gradual reopening of houses of worship since the beginning of June, during the pandemic that erupted in mid-March. For more than two months, Walgenbach and some of his diocesan colleagues took action to reach out to Catholics confined to their homes.
“We have to really think about when Pope Francis says we’re called to be missionary disciples; what does that really mean? How are we going out to people?” Walgenbach says. “We have to really figure out what that looks like–to share the love of Jesus with those in our community and build connections and build solidarity among people.”
That’s the philosophy that led to the creation, in late March, of a program entitled the Serve Hope helpline.
Walgenbach, along with Deacon Frank Chavez, director of the Office of the Diaconate, and Armando Cervantes, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adults, launched the new ministry.
Run by an army of volunteers, the Serve Hope helpline helps people in need of food, crisis counseling and spiritual direction.
The toll-free number, 844-279-0105, is manned by volunteers daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The languages primarily are English and Spanish, but the service has some capacity to help Vietnamese speakers.
Although the main services are supplying food and providing emotional support, Serve Hope volunteers also are prepared to pray with callers and possibly refer them to the New Hope Crisis hotline (714-NEW-HOPE), which offers crisis and suicide prevention resources.
“We’re called to live out the Beatitudes,” Cervantes says of the Serve Hope ministry. “This is our ministry, and our faith.”
Through May 29, the helpline received nearly 500 calls and has served more than 70 families with food deliveries, in additional to directing people to local pantry resources.
The ministry has provided physical and material assistance as needed during the lockdown, when people found other ways to connect through livestream Masses, Zoom meetings, webinars, and the like.
More than 70 hotline volunteers have registered to pick up food at the Doris Cantlay Center in Santa Ana and deliver it to homes of people who asked for help.
The Cantlay Center, the main source of food for the Serve Hope program, is a ministry of Catholic Charities Orange County and has been providing food assistance and fulfilling other needs since the beginning of the Diocese of Orange in 1976.
Directed by Michael Tijerino, the center distributes food on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from its Santa Ana warehouse.
Chavez said 16 members of the diaconate community (deacons, wives, candidates and aspirants) have served as drivers aiding at least 28 families. He also said that 20 members of the diaconate community are working at the Cantlay Center packing food for distribution and delivery.
“For years,” Chavez says, “the church has expected people to come to them. Now the virus has caused us to be aware of our calling, which is to evangelize and go out to people. So maybe we’re learning a lesson here.”
Also critical to the new ministry have been Joan Patten, delegate for Consecrated Life, for her work in the spiritual assistance component of the line, and Lucy Dominguez and Cathryn Wallace for their service on the diaconate team.
Walgenbach shared one call he had with a mother in need of food assistance.
“She lived in a crowded apartment, and the cell phone service was bad, so we had many dropped calls,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘I will call you back as many times as you need.’”
The woman was very grateful someone was checking in on her, Walgenbach says.
“She cried and we prayed,” he says. “And the phone didn’t drop at all during our prayer. She was very happy about that.”
Cervantes received a phone call from a 71-year-old woman who did not drive, had cancer, and had nowhere to turn until she was able to call the Serve Hope hotline. He also spoke to a woman who was quarantined because she had the virus, and was simply hungry.
“At first the helpline started off slowly, but it’s really rocking now,” Chavez says.
Says Walgenbach: “For those of us receiving a lot of the calls, it really is a beautiful ministry. I always end up encouraging people to see if I can pray with them over the phone. And I haven’t had anybody turn me down yet.”
Walgenbach adds that the Serve Hope helpline underscores the importance of all Catholics to do something for the common good.
“We’re doing this to help our neighbors and to keep people safe — especially those who are most vulnerable,” he says. “The Eucharist is absolutely at the center of our faith. It’s the source and summit of our faith, as the catechism says.
“The Eucharist is about love of God and love of neighbor. Just because the churches have been closed doesn’t mean we’re not praying, that we aren’t caring for one another, that we aren’t loving one another, that we aren’t worshiping God, albeit in a different way during this period of time.
“People just feel touched that the church, the people of God, are connecting with them in some way, and that they’re not alone.”