With COVID-19 continuing to impact the world around us, local faith leaders are convinced: faith in darker times is harder to cling to, but its importance is unwavering.
Pastor John Neal of Victory Fellowship Church in Safford and other religious leaders in Graham and Greenlee counties are spreading this message:
“We want them to know that we love them and that God loves them,” he said.
Maintaining a relationship with God is of the utmost importance, but there are other ways to deal with stress, too, religious leaders agree.
Multiple pastors, including Barry Speck, the pastor of the Church of New Beginnings in Morenci, stressed the need for service to others during these unprecedented times.
“We have the blessings around us to focus on. Know what is happening around the world has prompted people to give much more to Operation Christian Child,” Speck said. “The key is to remove the focus from yourself and to focus on others. We remind ourselves of the truths of our faith — it is better to give than to receive; to put into practice the desire to love your neighbor.”
Mark Beus, president of the Pima Arizona Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, related service to a shift in perception.
“When you turn your heart outward and look to lift other people, it lifts your own soul as well. Service is very therapeutic for those who might be struggling,” Beus said.
Online at www.comeuntochrist.org there is a service-oriented movement called Light the World. By entering an email or phone number, participants can receive tips on how to do daily acts of service. Beaus suggested participating with the Light the World movement in order to find new ideas on how to do acts of service within the community.
Steve Martin, the pastor for the First Southern Baptist Church in Duncan, suggested volunteering at a food pantry.
“We run the Duncan Food Pantry,” Martin said. “It helps us understand our situation and help us realize we have it a lot better than a lot of people in the world.”
This year many families are facing the possibility of spending the holiday separated from their loved ones. Some may decide to isolate completely in the effort to prevent the community spread of COVID-19.
Speck said there are still ways for people to connect with family and friends during Thanksgiving, however.
“We are blessed to live in Arizona during this warm fall. Families can get together outside and enjoy family and distance. Visiting the elderly and providing them with a meal. We can also help the elderly to connect with family and through Zoom,” Speck said. “There is always getting on the phone and calling those who cannot get out. The calls should never be rushed and give the caller the opportunity to get to really listen to another person.”
Beus and Martin agreed people should take advantage of modern technology.
“There are a lot of opportunities to connect through social media,” Beus said.
Martin hasn’t taken a public stance on staying home.
“We’re leaving that to the families,” Martin said. “I do tell them this is serious. It’s not a political agenda. It’s a serious disease and they need to take precautions.”
All Saints Episcopal Church Reverend Devin Scott Gillespie said it isn’t the responsibility of the lonely to break through to communicate with others.
That being the case, the Episcopal Church gathers twice to three times a week by using Zoom to communicate and check-in with one another. Instead of waiting for someone to ask for help, he encourages everyone to check on family, friends and neighbors.
“You may be surprised at the bonds created when you step out of your own world and step into the life of someone in need, and you may be surprised at how just having a simple conversation with someone who feels alone will open up a world of joy and gratitude in your own life,” Gillespie said.
Instead of looking on the outside for physical blessings, Beus suggested looking inward to find something to be thankful for.
“We often for Thanksgiving try to look outside ourselves, which is appropriate and good. But maybe this year we look inside ourselves for the things we’re really grateful for in regards to religious things like Jesus Christ and his role in our lives. It’s a very personal and individual and maybe more heartfelt. An eternal kind of gratitude,” Beus said.
Through cultivating thankfulness people are happier, Speck said.
“We need to count our blessings and teach our children how truly thankful we are for our families, friends, our schools, our communities,” Speck said. “When you begin to say aloud the things you are grateful for, it takes the focus off yourselves and on to others.”
The hardships of the year have reminded many that it is a blessing to live in the United States, Martin said.
“I think sometimes we take it for granted until something like a pandemic hits and then we realize how easy we’ve had it and how we’ve taken it for granted. We’re concentrating a lot on counting our blessings,” Martin said.
Pastor Randall MacDonald of the New Testament Baptist Church in Safford said in order to understand thankfulness, it is important to understand faith. Through faith in God, people can be thankful and trust in his plan.
“We are thankful because we have a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, he is here yesterday and already in our future. We can trust him,” MacDonald said.
Gillespie quotes the book “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zin to his congregants.
“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than there is wrong, no matter how ill or how hopeless you may feel,” wrote Zin.
The act of engaging marginalized communities gives others permission to discover the blessings around them. It is important to engage each other with genuine care and concern without trying to fix anyone or convert them, he said.
In the ongoing stress of the community’s every day, Neal said some of the youngest in the community are struggling and need support.
“Kids are really paying a high price. A lot of the kids are struggling,” Neal said. “We encourage people to talk to their kids. Love them and let them know it’s going to be OK.”
Although they aren’t able to be a part of the conversation or decision-making process, the stress of COVID-19 is weighing heavily on the youth of the community, he said.
For MacDonald, this year has served as a reminder to keep the faith while finding happiness and joy in God’s promises.
“We’re always going to be reminded to go back to the word of God,” MacDonald said.
Just because Thanksgiving and Christmas will be different from years past, Beus said he hoped the community would not think it means the holiday season has to be less than before. If people are creative and thoughtful, they can be as kind and Christ-like to their fellow man as they ever were, he said.
“Don’t let this stiffen your kindness and charity to your fellow man,” Beus said. “Figure out ways to be even better.”