ARLINGTON, Va. – From taking part in online video sermons to providing socially distanced religious and spiritual support, creativity and flexibility were key for the New York Air National Guard’s Religious Support Team working at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
“It requires a great deal of creativity and a lot of cooperation and teamwork to provide those resources,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Mancuso, a chaplain assistant with the two-person team.
Mancuso and his counterpart on the team, Air Force Lt. Col. Jake Marvel, the team’s chaplain, were deployed to the Javits Center in early April as part of the New York National Guard’s COVID-19 response efforts.
They provided religious and spiritual support to more than 2,200 people who staffed the alternate care facility, included Service members from all military branches, local, state and federal officials and Javits Center employees.
“They’re human beings who have families at home, whose children are scared, who wrestle with their own spiritual beliefs in the midst of this,” said Marvel. “All of us are human beings underneath the uniforms that we wear.”
While at Javits, Marvel and Mancuso supported major observances from three religions: Easter, Passover and Ramadan.
They provided matzo bread and gefilte fish for Passover, ensured meals were available after fasting hours and prayer rugs were accessible during Ramadan and found ways to make sure those who wanted to receive Holy Communion during Easter were able to, said Mancuso.
“We had to get creative,” said Mancuso. “But the reaction that Service members had to be able to celebrate … was a wonderful thing.”
However, they didn’t stop at just meeting the needs of those with traditional religious practices.
“There are particular religions that have holidays that are being marked right now, but there are other people whose needs are not necessarily that specific,” said Marvel. “There’s a lot of folks for whom particular religious practice is not what their spirituality is about.”
Keeping that in mind, they created a quiet calm room and a meditation room with yoga mats, lamps that replaced fluorescent overhead lights and soothing music, said Marvel.
All of it was done with social distancing in mind, which is something Mancuso and Marvel didn’t have to worry about during previous response efforts. At Javits, it was one of the biggest challenges they faced.
“The type of ministry that you could do always remained the same – gather people together and we worship as a community,” said Mancuso. “Well, we can’t do that. Our No. 1 tool in our toolbox is gone. We’ve overcome that and that’s been the defining part of this mission.”
Their ability to do that comes, in part, from the skills they brought to the mission.
About a year ago, Mancuso was in Puerto Rico, taking part in a training exercise that closely mirrored the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were in a gymnasium, similar to the area that we are in now,” said Mancuso. “I have been able to put a lot of those lessons learned into practice. For example, setting up religious services or morale and welfare type of stuff – you don’t have a whole lot of time or resources to advertise, so you have to get creative about how you engage Service members.”
Mancuso, who also has experience in emergency management, pointed out he isn’t the only one on the team who brings significant experience to this mission.
Marvel has similar experience from his civilian job.
“Chaplain Marvel is the senior chaplain at the Albany Medical Center,” said Mancuso. “So, he knows how to operate a large team of chaplains in a clinical setting.”
This ability was essential as in their time at Javits, the team has worked with Army chaplains, a Navy chaplain from the USNS Comfort, and even a priest appointed by the Archdiocese of New York.
“That is one of the reasons we were brought on for this mission was to help and advise the other ministry teams who have not done this type of mission before,” said Mancuso.
Now that all patients have been discharged from the Javits Center, which remains available in case of a second wave of the coronavirus, both Mancuso and Marvel said one of their big takeaways is pride in helping out their community.