by Aprille Hanson Spivey
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CNS) — Father Aby Abraham, associate pastor of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, chats by video daily with his siblings, including his sister Laisa Biju, a married mother of three who works as a nurse in New Delhi.
While Father Abraham suspects his sister keeps much of the horror she sees to herself in their country ravaged by a second wave of coronavirus, a continuous stream of deaths is part of her daily life.
“Many people are dying. Many are dying, there’s no doubt about it,” Father Abraham said quietly. “For her, it’s a surprise that many are dying and there are so many cases. . . . We pray for her every day.”
Reuters reported May 18 that India’s health ministry data showed the country’s total tally of coronavirus cases stood at 25.23 million, following 263,533 new infections over the previous 24 hours, while fatalities rose by a record 4,329. The official total death toll stood at 278,719.
The Diocese of Little Rock has 17 priests from the Diocese of Nellore, India, as well as four from Indian religious orders. As extern priests, they work in the diocese temporarily and will return to India if requested by their bishop.
Father Balaraju Desam, associate pastor at St. Joseph Church in Conway, Arkansas, came to the U.S. from India in 2016. He speaks daily with his family, sometimes twice a day, accounting for the 10-hour time difference: “Sometimes I’d have to wake up in the middle of the night to give them a call.”
“I’ve been giving them some advice from my side: not to go out, wear the mask, make sure the sanitizer is with you in your pocket all the time, 6-feet distance,” he said, adding two of his cousins and their families are sick from the virus. “They have little kids . . . they are so much afraid right now. They are just staying at home, just quarantined.”
Crematoriums are overwhelmed, with bodies piling up. Father Abraham said because of the small Catholic population, most are buried, but Hindus are cremated.
“Some of the priests told me that they had to wait 20 hours for cremation, 15 to 20, 24 hours for cremation. Some bodies were . . . cremated by the roadside, some of their friends told them. It’s really bad,” Father Abraham told the Arkansas Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.
As quickly as COVID-19 can spread, lives are constantly changing.
“They are so shocked to hear from their friends and their family, immediately with no time, the person passed away. They have no words to say,” Father Desam said about his family in Nellore, in southern India.
“And also they were so shocked to hear about some of the priests who died in my state [of India] and even in my own diocese,” he added. “Father Philip [Louis] died, he worked in Oklahoma, he just went on vacation in India.”
Father Abraham said three priests from his order, the Indian Missionary Society, have died of COVID-19.
“People in the United States, they got vaccinated and thank God for that, but we have to pray for the rest of the world and also especially for the country of India right now,” Father Desam said.
“There are a lot of deaths every day, every day lots of deaths. At the same time, people are suffering from a shortage of vaccines and a shortage of oxygen,” he said. “There are a lot of people dying on the streets, having shortage of breath, looking for oxygen and the oxygen is not available in the hospitals.”
Father Jayraj Sure, associate pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is the only active Indian priest in the Diocese of Little Rock who is currently stuck in India.
Deacon Matt Glover, chancellor for canonical affairs, said the diocese tried to get him a flight back to the United States before the May 11 lockdown barring anyone from India from entering the U.S., but every flight was booked.
Deacon Glover hopes by the fall, the priest can return. The diocese will fly him back as soon as it’s a possibility.
Father Sure, who moved to Arkansas in 2019, left April 12 to visit India and was supposed to return to Fayetteville May 13. From India, Father Sure in a message to the Arkansas Catholic explained he traveled to his home country to bless his brother’s marriage.
“I feel sorry and heartbroken to see the horrible situation of India,” said Father Sure, who is currently staying with his family in the Prakasam district in the Diocese of Nellore.
“My family members are not going out, and they stay at home unless there is an emergency,” he said. “People are not coming to church, priests are going out only when there is an emergency. Even weddings are not celebrated in the Mass, just blessing [a] wedding.”
Laborers are finding it difficult to make a living because of the lockdown, he said, and many have died from the scarcity of oxygen and hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.
“People find it difficult to follow the restrictions, keeping masks and sanitizing because there is no daily work,” he said, adding families with small children in a small house “find it difficult to maintain distance.”
The Diocese of Little Rock has had a relationship with the Diocese of Nellore since Bishop Anthony B. Taylor came to Arkansas in 2008. He had gotten to know priests of Nellore while he served as a priest in Oklahoma.
“It’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that these guys are a long way from home, and it’s hard to be a long way from home,” Deacon Glover said. “It’s hard to be a long way from home if you’re in the same country, but much less when you’re in a totally different country.”
“You know, we don’t need to just offer up just general prayers for these guys, but really show real empathy for what they’re going through,” he suggested, and understand “that they’re away from home, which is hard enough as it is, but they’re away from home right now in the midst of a true national crisis and tragedy that’s going on.”
He urged the Catholic faithful show these priests “extra patience and extra kindness and extra attention, and recognize that they’re mourning right now, and they’re going through trauma right now.”