January 21. 2021
Telechaplaincy represents new opportunity for parish ministry
By Blair Holtey
As soon as COVID hit, I knew ministry would change in our hospital. I just didn’t know how. But then it happened. We started making phone calls to patients. Any patient in isolation became a candidate for a personal call, and most, if not all patients, thanked our team. This new form of ministry also gave us an opportunity to reach out to patients’ families in ways we never had. In a way, it gave us license to meet spiritual needs without feeling like we were soliciting. There was something very genuine about it.
Once this form of communication became popular, I realized that it would probably be a great way to reach out to people in my parish. After checking with my pastor, I began making calls from the parish office. They gave me a phone, desk and notebook with names to call. These people were not sick; they just didn’t want to go to church quite yet because they didn’t want to get COVID.
Many shared some guilty feelings because they had not been in church since March. Some did not realize that our local bishop had lifted the holy day of obligation. What a relief it brought to these souls. On other occasions, I reached people on their birthday. One fellow had forgotten it was his birthday, as the days had been the same, every day, and he said the call “made his year.” On several calls, people started to share their personal hardships and how some family members, including spouses, had died from COVID, or of other causes during these past months without a proper funeral.
The most common script I use is: “During these times of COVID and changes in our nation, we are calling to ask how you are coming along.” Open-ended questions like this bring out the feelings people have had penned up inside. I have found that the phrase “these times” has given them a kind of permission to comment on whatever is going on with them in the moment, or with whatever has been festering.
Telechaplaincy is a sacred encounter, and those chance meetings sometimes feel like divine appointments. Most calls are brief, and the parishioner seems grateful. However, one particular call sticks in my mind. At first, the parishioner (I’ll call her Jane) wanted to know why a chaplain was calling. She asked my name, twice, and seemed pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t a solicitor. After sharing some of her family issues, she wanted to know if I had any prayer needs. Given that I was having eye surgery the very next day, I asked her to pray for it to be successful. As the conversation neared its end, we prayed together, and Jane said, “Chaplain, you will be on my prayer list. Can I be called again next week? Thank you for being my private psychologist.” Though I did not see her face during the call, I couldn’t help but think that she was half smiling and winking an eye. As I write, it is my intention to follow up with another call. I can’t wait!
On other recent calls, I have told this story of my own, which many people have thanked me for:
I don’t normally look for a sign that things will be OK. Especially since Noah’s Ark. I don’t look for a dove to bring a branch to me after a flood of strong emotions. However, a bird did come to my aid two weeks ago. I had not known about what had happened at our Capitol until later in the afternoon, when I turned on the radio. As I drove home after a very long day serving at the bedside of patients, I realized that something wrong had happened and that the America I had known had changed. Breaking into the Capitol was very symbolic, and it bothered me because that structure represents part of the soul of America. As I got out of the car, I looked up into the tree in front of our home. Lo and behold. A bald eagle! It took off and circled our property and then headed over the ocean. I had not been looking for that symbol. Seeing that American icon gave me consolation. It gave me the hope I needed to go back and make 30 calls to the shut-ins of our parish – who had probably been watching the TV and wondering what had happened to America that afternoon.
COVID will not get me down! If you look back into history, the bald eagle’s life was threatened. But now look! We just don’t know why God allows certain things to happen the way they do. Isaiah 55:8. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. Nor are your ways my ways.”
We are looking to expand on the telechaplaincy concept. COVID has not stopped us, telechaplaincy grew wings, and it helped us spread our wings. We’re flying high!
Blair Holtey, BCC, is spiritual care coordinator at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, FL.
January 7, 2021
Chaplains can help families work through grief
By Adriana Rengifo
As chaplains, we know about grief and mourning all too well. Many of us serve in a clinical practice that allows us to walk alongside patients and families who have experienced very difficult situations. However, nothing has fully prepared us to deal with the immediate challenges of grief and mourning in the midst of a pandemic like COVID -19.
In the early stages of my career, I listened to stories from family members as they worked through the loss of their loved one (mourning), and I intentionally attended to their experience of grief, as well as learning about it myself. But most families that were dealing with the death of a loved one were surrounded by others who were ill-prepared to help them. As John James and Russell Friedman write, “It is only natural and quite healthy for people who are caught in a grieving situation to seek solace from those around them. However, in rather short order it becomes abundantly clear to the griever that friends and associates are not of much help. Even though they are well-meaning, they often say things that can seem inappropriate.”
The death of a loved one is a profound and life-transforming event. There is no one formula on how to grieve. And how each person deals with grief is informed by other previous losses, and by the relationship with the person who died. In due course, it becomes a personal journey between how things were and how they will be.
After I had been doing clinical work for some years, I came across a book titled “Grief Works” by Julia Samuel, a psychotherapist specializing in grief, who has worked for 25-plus years with bereaved families as a pediatric and maternity counselor in Great Britain. While this was actually a self-help resource, the content of the book spoke to me, because of the stories about counselees as they worked through grief in their psychotherapy sessions. The book helped me prepare in advance for potential scenarios that I would see in clinical practice.
In the current pandemic, I wonder how I manage to continue working without sustaining professional and personal burnout. But as part of my professional training in psychotherapy, I have intentionally honored my self-care practices, keeping in mind what matters and works for me instead of suppressing my emotions, or ignoring the psychological impact of my clinical work.
I have been personally challenged by the current isolation measures that prevent social gatherings at the time of loss. People who are geographically separated from close family and friends also have to cope with this new physically distant way of mourning. Compounding this, their loved one’s body, in many cases, was not put to rest in accordance with collective customs and faith practices. Those who don’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved one may find closure even more difficult.
I think one reason why our grieving process has been impacted so strongly by the pandemic is because certain kinds of death are more difficult to grieve than others. Sudden deaths by COVID-19 also leave family members dealing with unanswered questions and painful memories of how the death took place. Unexpected deaths, such as heart and respiratory failure due to COVID-19 complications, have left too many families with not enough time to say goodbye. In the past months, I have witnessed the intense feelings of regret, guilt, and anger as family members, in their grief, look for someone to blame, sometimes including themselves.
For chaplains, grieving is not something that we do after work, but rather a therapeutic approach embedded in the way we engage and support patients, families and staff. Our ministry of presence helps those family members who trust us to accompany them in their healing process. Bringing a positive outlook on life in the face of COVID-19 is how we stay curious and open to the challenges that may lie ahead. Trusting that, in answering the vocational call of our profession, we are aware of the balance that is needed to know when to allow ourselves and others some alone time to do the grieving process and when to reach out to others.
Adriana Rengifo M.A., is a registered psychotherapist and clinical chaplain at Bruyere Continuing Care in Ottawa, Ontario. This is adapted from a presentation to an NACC webinar in November.
December 29, 2020
Pandemic puts unique strains on pediatric hospitals
By Jim Manzardo
It’s holiday time 2020, and all through the world, nary a soul has been spared the weariness, hardship and grief of COVID-19. Yet people everywhere, parents and grandparents especially, are also feeling eternally grateful that this novel virus has been quite merciful to children.
Though pediatric hospitals have cared for many children and adolescents with COVID-19, almost all of them have been sent home directly from emergency departments with minimal symptoms and orders to quarantine. For those who were hospitalized (almost always because of comorbidities) and for their parents, the greatest fear, of course, has been for their survival. Fortunately, very few children and adolescents have died from this virus.
A major source of stress for families has been the visitor restrictions. At the pediatric hospital where I work, early in the pandemic, both parents were allowed to be at bedside. Given the uncertainties, parents usually understood that neither siblings nor any other family or friends could visit.
But some parents were distressed in April when they were informed that only one parent at a time could be at bedside. These restrictions were difficult and felt isolating for more alert patients who wanted both their parents, and for those parents who now only saw each other in passing. Though video calls have definitely helped patients and parents feel more connected to family and friends, the diminished physical presence of these beloved has still been difficult.
Also, early in the pandemic, volunteers were no longer permitted to enter the hospital. They have always played a vital role in helping kids feel normal, especially through play, the arts, music, humor, and schooling, and in giving parents a break. Their absence has left a big hole.
We remaining hospital staff, more limited in our direct human contact and wearing PPE, have often been the sole people interacting with our young patients for extended periods of time. Our empathic, compassionate bedside nurses especially, though no substitute for parents, have been extra sensitive and responsive to patients’ and parents’ difficult circumstances and needs. Among those challenging circumstances has been a rise in children and adolescents with mental health issues who need inpatient psychiatric placement. Yet many pediatric psychiatric facilities are full, leaving these youth to wait in general pediatric units not resourced to address their specific needs – an added stress for those units’ staff.
As with chaplains in adult healthcare facilities, more of our spiritual care than usual has been directed to staff. Similarly to elsewhere, staff has grown weary of COVID’s impact on all aspects of people’s lives. However, as popular culture began speaking of healthcare workers as heroes, many in pediatric healthcare settings felt undeserving of such accolades. Considering our low COVID numbers, some even felt survivors’ guilt, aware of how overwhelmed their friends in the adult healthcare world were with COVID cases. Many ICU staff where I work tried to address this internal angst by sending wellness packages to healthcare staff at the nearby adult hospital.
Over time, with more people, young and old alike, staying home and socializing less, fewer kids were ending up in the hospital. Those decreasing numbers eventually meant that pediatric hospitals had to furlough and/or lay off workers. Some staff began to worry about the future of their jobs and to wonder if this was the beginning of a new normal. At our institution, everyone from the CEO to frontline staff shared in cutbacks, which gave many a feeling that we were indeed in this together.
Throughout this unprecedented year, I have accompanied many staff and patients’ parents, and held their worries, weariness and fears. Again and again, I have reminded them they are not alone and encouraged self-kindness, and I have seen the pathway open for them to find light in their darkness, to experience a more gentle leading, and to feel a much needed comfort. Maranatha!
Jim Manzardo, BCC, is clinical care coordinator chaplain at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
December 28, 2020
Chaplains share stories of the first wave of vaccines
In last week’s NACC Now, we asked members to tell us if they had received the COVID vaccine and what the experience was like. Below, we share the responses. Thanks to all who wrote in, and may the vaccine continue to do its work.
I received my first Pfizer vaccine shot last Thursday, the second day it was available in Pima County, AZ. I have been spending an average of 75% of my patient time in the COVID units and rooms at Tucson Medical Center. The hospital had all the staff chaplains in the first group to receive it.
Very minor side effects of a sore arm and mild headache. Both went away within 24 hours.
Deacon Andy Corder
I am a 32-year-old Caucasian male with no history of reactions to vaccines. I received my first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine the morning of Thursday, Dec. 17. The injection itself felt indistinguishable from a regular flu shot. Within six hours, I began having reactions in line with what many experienced in the clinical trials: headache, body aches, injection site tenderness, and fatigue. The following morning, nausea joined this roster. I was able to work on Friday, using NSAIDs to control my symptoms and visiting fewer patients than usual. I spent the weekend resting. By Monday, Dec. 21, all these reactions had ceased and I felt like myself again. All told, the aftereffects were no worse than mild flu minus the respiratory symptoms.
I don’t have a representative sampling for true statistical analysis, but as a casual observer it seems to me that my older colleagues counterintuitively had fewer reactions (or even none at all) compared to younger ones. Also, somewhat embarrassingly, I seem to have had the worst reaction out of all the colleagues I spoke with! Not a workplace award you want to win.
Regarding emotions, the full spectrum was truly represented among staff. Some colleagues’ eagerness to get vaccinated reminded me of Black Friday shoppers ready to pounce on a doorbuster deal. Others were suspicious, with some stating they planned to “wait awhile and see how everyone else reacts to it” and others outright refusing. Addressing those concerns and providing education, with the hope of raising the vaccination rate, are high priorities across disciplines right now. As a chaplain, I am contributing my experience in helping people name and explore difficult emotions. I myself was keen to receive my shot as soon as possible and have zero regrets. A few days of feeling lousy is a paltry price to pay compared to the consequences of contracting COVID-19. My foremost concern is protecting my beloved patients, as well as setting an example for the general public.
Justin Rowan, chaplain, Catholic Health System, Buffalo, NY
I received my first dose on Friday. I was a little apprehensive until I bumped into two of my favorite Catholic physicians who were receiving their vaccines ahead of me. It was also a sweet consolation that our kind employee health nurse administered my vaccine. A little pain from the needle and a few days of soreness, but not much more than usual flu vaccine.
They say I have super powers now.
Zoë Krizak, chaplain, Houston Methodist Baytown
I am happy to report that 24 hours after receiving the first COVID vaccine, I am feeling just fine. This is for everyone who needs to hear this from someone they actually know. I share the hope of many that everyone who most needs it gets it as soon as possible and with their own full consent.
I am mainly grateful to be included in the first wave, eager to partake because I have already been caring for COVID-positive patients for a while and intend to keep doing so, and finally relieved that I am fine so far.
Mary T. Tracy, director of pastoral care, Cleveland Clinic Marymount Hospital, Garfield Heights, OH.
Betty Warner, BCC, chaplain/spiritual support counselor, Samaritan—Life-Enhancing Care, Mount Laurel, NJ
December 21, 2020
Virtual rituals help families cope with loss
By Sr. Monica Okon, HHCJ
Prior to COVID-19, my pastoral care department celebrated a monthly memorial Mass in the chapel for the families of patients who died the previous month, and the chapel was usually full. During the pandemic, no Mass was celebrated for patients who died from February 2020 to September 2020. But as the numbers of dead kept increasing, it became obvious that we still had a need for this meaningful memorial service – particularly when so many patients died without their family members at bedside.
We had to do something different that was still meaningful and provided spiritual support to the families. Our pastoral care director, Sr. Pauline Gilmore, FMM, wrote to inform them of a memorial Mass during November, the time in the liturgical calendar when the dead are remembered, celebrated and prayed for. Different days in November were dedicated to celebrating all those who died in a particular month. For example, those who died in the month of September 2020 were remembered on Saturday, November 28, 2020. We wrote to the families, “For their remembrance, a list of the deceased will be placed at the foot of the altar. Our sincere hope is that this will bring comfort to your family as you mourn your loss.”
We did not plan for this event to be live or shared, but many families were happy to know that their loved one was being remembered and prayed for at a specific hour. And some families did show up at the hospital with flowers on the day of the Mass. We invited them in to participate, masked and distanced.
At New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where I did my residency and now serve on the CPE advisory board, I recently participated in a Zoom bereavement service. For years, Joo Young Hong, the coordinator of pastoral care, has organized an annual perinatal bereavement service. The occasion offers a safe place for families who have lost a baby to grieve and share their sadness and realize they are not alone. Although the service was virtual, it still captured the warmth and intimacy of previous years. Prayers were shared; songs played; poems and responsive psalms read; a reflection presented; and we lit candles as “a symbol of hope through our recognition of loss” while the names of the babies were read. A blessing was offered at the end of the service by the director of the Pastoral Care Department, Peter Poulos.
Even though it was a virtual service, some of the changes were actually improvements. I was personally struck that not only did more people Zoom in to join the virtual service, but more families were willing to share their stories because they did not have to hold a microphone and stand in front of a group of people. Many families shared their stories and others expressed where they are in their grieving process. Above all, they felt supported by the hospital.
To celebrate these angels is always very meaningful, since it brings families who are in the same situation together. I pray that these families continue to experience the love and comfort of this community of support, and may their babies be seen as angels to their parents and families. For all the dead, may you rest in peace, and for all who mourn, we love you, we pray for you and please reach out for someone to listen to you as needed. We the chaplains are always here for you.
Sr. Monica Okon, HHCJ, is a staff chaplain at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, NY.
December 15, 2020
15-minute daily pause is enough to improve mental health
By Craig A. Smith
During this time of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. Studies have shown that individuals who have mental illness generally also have physical issues that are not being attended to. Our physical and mental wellness go hand in hand.
Our bodies react to stress, which is defined as any change in either the internal or external environment. Stress is always happening, but how we handle our stress will determine our well-being. Individuals handle stress differently. People who do not manage their stress may be easily irritable; lose sleep, appetite, or energy; feel anxious or depressed; or use drugs or alcohol to cope with everyday problems.
How can you take care of your own mental health? The answer is simple: Take time for you. People will often respond that they can’t make that block of time. But guess what, all you need is 15 minutes. It may not seem like much, but it is enough time to calm your mind. There are plenty of things you can do in 15 minutes.
- You can take a brief walk through your neighborhood.
- You can enjoy a hot beverage.
- You can meditate or focus on your breathing.
- You can read an article in your favorite magazine
- You can pray.
- You can take a hot shower or bath.
- You can take a nap.
- You can take a drive and listen to the radio.
The best place to take your 15 minutes is away from work. However, there is nothing wrong with taking five minutes during the workday to stretch your legs, take a couple deep breaths, and refocus. Also, it is easier to take your 15 minutes around the same time every day.
My time out for me is immediately after work. I get into my car, take a couple deep cleansing breaths, and grip the steering wheel for approximately five seconds. I do this to release stress and to end my work before going home. On my way home, I like to listen to music and sing. I had to train myself to do this, but after a while it became natural.
If you find that 15 minutes is just not enough, adjust accordingly. If a 15-minute nap does not help you feel energized, then nap for 30 minutes. The point is that you are taking the nap because it is what you need. If you miss quality time with friends and family, make it a point to call or Facetime a person on a set date and time. Having social interaction is just as important has having alone time.
Please remember all of the other important ways to take care of yourself during COVID-19. Wear a mask, wash or sanitize your hands frequently, keep six feet apart, get enough sleep, and eat healthy foods. Most of all, remember to take time for you.
Craig A. Smith RN, is Director of Nursing for the Behavioral Health Institute at St Charles Hospital in Oregon, OH.
December 8, 2020
Pandemic strains our mental health in unexpected ways
By Nicholas Perkins
The pandemic interrupts our lives and may awaken us at night. It disrupts our sense of control and leaves us fumbling for answers. It has obliterated consistency and predictability, two qualities that are important to mental health.
We hear a lot in the news about the economic fallout from the pandemic. But we hear much less about policies and programs that involve mental health – a problem that existed before the pandemic and will remain when it ends. Adults in America, in one large nationwide survey, were three times more likely to screen positive for anxiety and depressive disorders, compared with one year earlier.
Mental health comprises three parts: emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being. I liken it to an elaborate network that supports life and opens it to awe and mystery. When one of those parts is out of balance, it disrupts the other two. Imagine how a tiny blister on the foot of a runner causes a gradual breakdown in form and rhythm, and you can understand the intricate system that makes up our mental health.
Like many of my colleagues, I’ve seen how COVID-19 has affected mental health. Recently, I had to deliver the personal effects of a patient who died from COVID to her husband and son. I remember the weight of the bag and the question this 14-year-old boy asked me as I handed his mother’s belongings to his father: Please tell me how I am going to live without my mom.
I felt small in that moment and reflected on how this pandemic has altered our understanding of grief and complex trauma. A complete appreciation will surface after we experience some kind of a return to normal. It would be a huge undertaking to list the many ways in which this virus has changed our lives and altered how we relate to one another. For instance, my health and welfare – perhaps more than any other time in living memory – is in the hands of others as much as theirs is in mine. We are called to practice a collective consciousness that respects the common good.
But mental health reaches into so many other manifestations of the pandemic. Instructions to wash hands and to refrain from touching certain objects can affect individuals who struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and orders to wear masks can cause people who are claustrophobic to feel more confined. I reflect often on the guilt and sadness that families feel when I call to tell them that their loved has died; they want to know if someone was present during that important moment.
Do we even think about what individuals with depression feel during this health crisis when the seasons change and there is less sunlight? I have a friend in New York City who has depression, and the experiences she shares about her isolation and loneliness mimic the emptiness that pervades the city’s once-active streets. I listen during these moments and do my best to be a source of hope and love.
This pandemic has also changed how we worship and gather as communities of believers, two other components that are important to mental health. Daily Mass at my hospital remains suspended, while many parishes in the diocese require a reservation in order to attend services. This virus strikes at the central theme of the Advent season: spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ and seeing God who takes on flesh in our relationships and the eyes of others.
When will legislators and policymakers make mental health a priority? When will news networks and other media platforms initiate dialogue about how this global pandemic affects mental health? The vitriol around which populations will receive the vaccines when they arrive eclipses the hope and joy that should accompany this significant moment.
Our responses to the pandemic can be a cure for it or a symptom of it. The well-being of the entire world has been compromised, but it is time to reinforce our connections. The anticipation and hope of Advent is important to our mental and spiritual health. I believe the day will arrive when lockdowns and restrictions are things of the past. Until that time, let us remain alert to how we can love and serve people who face myriad mental health challenges as a result of this global crisis.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.
December 1, 2020
How to celebrate the new year at a safe distance – and other COVID rituals
By Mary Davis
Gatherings, liturgy, and rituals are paramount to making meaning, providing depth, and bringing direction for the events in our lives – and we need them more than ever during a pandemic.
We are approaching a holiday season like none of us have ever experienced, but we still have a chance to make positive memories. During biweekly support chats with healthcare leaders in our six-hospital system, several people said they were looking forward to the end of 2020 on New Year’s Eve. This thought spurred several of us to create rituals for the whole system to say goodbye to 2020’s challenges – and to retain some of its gifts. In our pediatric hospital, we will have piñatas and refreshments in the last week of December for “Knock out 2020!” parties.
At the majority of our other sites, we hope to have rituals involving water bowls with dissolving paper to write messages to leave behind about COVID-19 (fear, changing protocols, no hugs) and keepsake boxes for what we want to retain (appreciation of family, slower pace of life). These gatherings, of necessity, will be small and physically distanced. Ideally they will also include ways for people to participate electronically, and many will be either virtually viewed or recorded. This is our present and likely future reality.
Physical distancing combined with technology has now become a common way for many Catholics to experience their Sunday liturgy. Previously, televised liturgies were mostly for the homebound. Now we make reservations to attend our own parish liturgies in person, and if we can’t, we attend through technology. The upside is that now we can participate in Mass in parishes anywhere in the country or even the world. At a cousin’s suggestion, I attended Mass in the churches of my parents’ childhood, where they attended high school, where they married, where I was baptized, and several churches overseas that our family attended during a military tour. This has greatly enriched my spiritual life journey.
Our CPE program went entirely online for classes when COVID-19 began. As we typically have a retreat day each unit, I debated how this could continue through Zoom. But I was determined to make it work. With intentionality, I put together retreat materials in boxes for each resident. As we opened our retreat day, each activity was in a separate envelope or box within the larger box, allowing for an element of mystery for our day. Some were objects for contemplation and sharing, others were YouTube video clips or songs we shared, one was a liturgy we shared, complete with communion bread that each person received, broke and ate during our service.
We laughingly learned that song was best led by one person, with the rest of us on mute, until we all knew the song. We learned that gestures to songs helped us connect more vividly on Zoom. We learned that meditation times were deepened if we closed out our videos so as not to be distracted by each other’s faces/movements. All residents mentioned our Zoom retreats at the end of the year as highlights of their two COVID CPE units.
We gave one of our residents and his family a baby shower through Zoom, inspired by a podcast from Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. She notes that any gathering needs to have a purpose/theme, and she supports having common objects, food and drink to bring diverse persons together. When we invited our Spiritual Care and CPE staff to the Zoom baby shower, we prepared small boxes for each person attending and sent them a pink party hat, a baby rattle, a Little Debbie cake, and a baby shower-themed napkin. The family expecting the new baby girl already had 2-year-old twin daughters, and we all had fun shaking our rattles after the girls assisted opening each gift. We all ate our cakes when they cut their party cake. The family loved seeing all of us in similar party hats, and felt less alone in their otherwise isolated time awaiting the birth of their child.
The point is that external circumstances need not impede us from providing meaningful opportunities for persons to be touched by presence and spirituality. This is how we continue to extend healing in challenging and uplifting times, and how we too make meaning of these same times.
Mary D. Davis, BCC-S, is the group director of clinical pastoral education for CHRISTUS Health and ACPE Certified Educator for the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System CPE program in San Antonio, Texas.
November 24, 2020
‘One day at a time,’ we can get through anything
By Anne Millington
Lately, at the hospital, people claim to be taking things “one day at a time.”
“One day at a time,” sighs the nursing assistant trying to hold down her job while managing her young children’s remote learning. “One day at a time,” says the anxious son whose father is in the ICU with COVID. “One day at a time,” we all chant as we watch the COVID numbers rise and hospital beds fill. Winter approaching, temperatures dropping, we swim around like fish in a lake, helplessly watching the ice form above us and the water cool around us.
And yet, one day at a time, these fish survive each winter, even when the layers of ice are thick enough to hold cars and trucks. As the water around them begins to cool, the fish slow down to conserve their energy, avoiding areas with strong currents that would require them to swim harder. They also head deeper, to the warmer waters at the bottom of the lake.
Like these fish, lately we seem to be slowing down and swimming deeper into ourselves. We continue as best as we can to hold our lives together, all the while noticing “hunkering down” symptoms in ourselves and others. “Ever since COVID, I haven’t been able to read books like I used to,” a patient said, “I just don’t have the concentration.” “Everyone seems so quiet and withdrawn lately,” a staff member noted. “No one is smiling much anymore, no one says much to each other.” “My friends and I aren’t calling and texting as much lately,” a nurse said. “There just doesn’t seem to be anything to say.”
And yet, one day at a time, as we swim slowly in the deep, frigid waters of COVID, our eyes may be slowly adjusting to our darkened aquatic landscape. Perhaps we are beginning to appreciate more of our day’s soft and comfortable moments – the amazing cup of coffee, the luxurious heated blanket. Perhaps we are beginning to appreciate more the relationships we have, the gifts we’ve received. “COVID has really taught me how precious life is,” a phone operator recently told me. “I’ve really had time to think about what really matters to me and who really matters to me.”
Particularly in this Thanksgiving week, let’s all remember to give thanks for the gift of each day. Slowly, we may be coming to feel how the deep waters of divine consciousness that surround us and sustain us are in fact expanding within us. We are developing new, broader internal resources to hold space for everything at once – our terrors, our joys, our gifts, our anxieties, our hopes, our resilience. One day at a time, shaped by the cold water, we are developing greater internal depth, greater ability to cope with long-term stress and difficulty, greater faith in our own resilience, greater trust that God can pull us through each day.
Our expanded consciousness in turn equips us to serve as powerful agents of healing and change in our communities. I think often these days of Abraham Lincoln, a man who weathered loss and battled depression through most of his adult life. Historians note, however, that it was Lincoln’s slow and steady walk with his painful adversities that gave him the depth, the patience, the humility and the strength to navigate the country through civil war and the abolition of slavery.
Eventually, the pandemic will pass – just like the lake thaws and warms every spring. We anticipate this better time, this time when life will “get back to normal.” While post-pandemic life may well be better in many ways, as we look closely we see different challenges on the lake’s horizon. After all, warmer weather brings with it more fishermen, and thus more hooks, nets and other dangers.
Our future will no doubt feature its own injustices, difficulties and tragedies. We will still have to strive for a society that is more inclusive, more humane, more loving. Indeed, life will never be perfect, not this side of the grave. In each and every season, one day at a time is all we ever have – and yet, one day at a time is all we will ever need.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.
November 5, 2020
Love wins. Prayer works. The spirit survives
By Mary T. Tracy
Why do I sometimes struggle to gracefully accept these lovely expressions of thanks to “those of us on the front lines”? Is it because I do not feel worthy to be counted among the ranks of janitors, food service workers, nurses, social workers, physicians, administrators, techs and therapists? Is it because there is so much work yet to do? Is it because I know that all the work I am contributing still will not be enough to spare everyone from suffering?
I don’t know.
So I have made make a list of the things I DO know, that get me out of bed every morning and give me comfort enough to fall asleep at night:
- Love wins.
- Prayer works.
- Grief is the healthiest gateway through experiences that reveal our lack of power.
- The spirit survives and turns our suffering, endured with love, into compassion.
C.S. Lewis described love (in the context of the Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbor) as desiring the good of the other purely for the sake of the other. It does not require liking one’s neighbor or condoning bad behavior. Properly employed, it sets the lover free to do the right thing – the loving thing – regardless of how it may inconvenience self or others.
I believe that we are oriented to love one another – and ourselves – in just this way. That is how we are naturally made, and with luck and effort, we continue not only to love one another but we understand that it is worth the sacrifice that love requires and makes bearable. Sacrifice is required not only to give love but also to receive love. By our inherent vulnerability, we learn about the sacrifice of receiving love first, as we receive it as infants from those we depend on for our very survival.
Gradually, we also learn the joy and power of giving love. We learn that it feels good to give our accomplishments to people who love us so much that they actually treasure our work (or at least our effort). Then we learn how good it feels to share with our peers in more of a mutual power dynamic.
And yet, very near the beginning of our discovery of the power of love, we also learn the pain of grief, when our love is not reciprocated or received as we intend. Just when we begin to sense the power inherent in our ability to love, we also learn the limits of our power. We learn that love is not control.
This brings me to my conviction that prayer works. When we learn humility – loving without expecting control or safety or any particular benefit at all – we also gain incredible freedom to act as lovingly as we desire. It is also natural to feel shaken and disturbed when we encounter suffering both near and far, in loved ones and in perfect strangers. Those of us who have chosen healthcare as our mission have likely already had this awareness that we would rather run toward those in harm’s way than away.
I speculate that the ER doctor in a New York hospital who recovered from COVID-19 was grieved not only to be ill but to have lost – even temporarily – his channel for loving and serving others. It is a double grief. Fortunately, this Dr. Maldonado found a new source of gratitude in his increased capacity for empathy towards his future patients.
Thus, grief acknowledges that our feeling of control will ultimately fail. Education and training, our health, the health and life of loved ones, our sterling character, our trust in any human endeavor – all are good and worthy of our attention, but none of them can perfectly protect against mass disaster or mortality.
Where our power fails, prayer allows us to acknowledge our grief and honor our desire for the good of ourselves, our loved ones and even strangers near and far. We acknowledge all that we do not control and yet still desire. Prayer assures us that our struggle matters and is not in vain. Prayer provides a healthy channel for our hope, particularly when we dig a little deeper than our surface needs and desires. Prayer allows the heart to speak honestly, generously, of how love wins. It can allow the fog of grief to yield to the genuine power we do have – the invitations to act on our compassion that we have been missing, out of frustration, sorrow and anger over the power we have lost.
Prayer works because it also allows us to hear from our most reliable advocate – our spirit. I am convinced that the spirit is our indestructible center. Regardless of how fragile or broken we may be physically, mentally, emotionally, our spirit advocates for us, for our true hope, our true good. Ironically, our spirit can be quite shy, too gentle to be heard in the midst of normal daily life. When we take down time – by choice or by circumstance – we can discover the spirit’s encouragement that suggests a new or rediscovered hope that reorients our actions, our purpose, our identity.
I alone can hear my own spirit. You alone can hear yours. We each must find our own way to hear our spirit speaking. For some, it may be talking with a friend. For others, it may be working in the garden or walking in a beautiful place. For still others, it may require writing from the heart just for one’s own eyes. I myself use all of these methods for attending to my own indestructible spirit. I invite you to do the same.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Inova Fairfax Medical Center and Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.
October 20, 2020
Chaplains’ skills of listening are tool to address racism
By Jim Letourneau
NACC Board Chair
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This quote has haunted me – perhaps for years – but especially since George Floyd’s death led to a cascading series of cries for racial justice.
I used to work in a Catholic healthcare organization where the CEO himself led our efforts for diversity and inclusion. Every ministry within the system was expected to appoint a diversity leader, articulate a strategic plan addressing diversity and inclusion, and address health disparities within their facility.
That was in 2006. I led the effort for my ministry. We had strategic goals and rolled them out to the edges of the organization. Each goal had identified outcomes that we were expected to meet or exceed.
And here we are in 2020. Have we made any progress? At the system’s corporate office, I can name Black senior executives. That is an important step, but true progress requires so much more than visual models. I am a person of privilege as a Caucasian male … and I find myself frustrated, angry, and dismayed at racial prejudice and discrimination. My attempts to be in solidarity with persons of color fall far short of appreciating their experiences.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other similar laws, as monumental as they were, could not change people’s hearts or attitudes. I believe conversion of heart happens when we listen to one another’s stories and experiences. As chaplains, that is our strength. We hear stories of those we serve every day. We bring a skill set that can lead to social change … if we knew how. I’ve been intrigued with the Faith Matters Network, which seeks to integrate faith with social movements. It seems that some chaplains have been able to use their listening skills in a meaningful way leading to cultural transformation.
Conversations dealing with race can be fraught with emotion. If we are conflict-avoidant, if we shrink back at the perception of anger (which I confess is my tendency), these inclinations can hold us back from the good we can do. Having a listening heart means opening ourselves up to the possibility that we can and will change. Listening admits that I may not know the truth or have all the answers. Listening humbly acknowledges that my perceptions may be wrong. Chaplains are trained to be emotionally intelligent and not to react thoughtlessly but to respond with intention, sometimes despite our feelings. It’s not always easy to carry out in practice, but it is something we can offer to address the effects of racism.
The USCCB’s Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service recently recommended that NACC equip its members in matters related to restorative justice. We do not see this as a new required competency, but we as an association will seek to provide tools for our members to use as needed. How can we restore the disenfranchised and isolated members of the human family to our community? Through conversation.
As the NACC Board Chair, I feel responsible for our response to systemic racism. I’ve said before that we cannot be the same as a result of all we’ve witnessed this year. A draft of a strategic plan devoted to racial justice has been presented to our Board, which has advised me to engage more members with the plan. In the coming weeks, representatives from our committees, panels, and commissions will respond to the draft with their suggestions for possible implementation. Select NACC members participating in the Hispanic and African-American networking calls will also offer their perspectives. We hope to roll out this plan by the end of the calendar year, but doing it effectively is more important than doing it quickly.
May we all continue to pray for social change and an end to systemic racism. It begins with each one of us.
October 13, 2020
“Where are you from?” is a loaded question
By Ruth Jandeska
When I moved to the United States from my native Colombia many years ago, answering the question “where are you from?” or “where is your accent from?” was delightful. I felt I was free to share who I was, my goals, my dreams, etc., without stereotypes judging me or my family. Here I was, a young aspiring black Latina scientist, the first one in my immediate family to earn a terminal education degree, alongside other foreign students and native English speakers.
It quickly became overwhelming, though. Anybody would ask those questions: people I met at the university, the bus driver, my neighbors, the cashier at the grocery store, even complete strangers waiting in line with me. Sometimes I would sense an authentic curiosity and a desire to learn that made me feel appreciated. I used to eagerly answer them, and sometimes an appreciative listener made me feel proud to describe the beauty of my birth land, its people and its culture – a different picture than the one of drug trafficking and cartels that is most often portrayed in the news.
But soon I noticed what these questions are truly about, for some: suspicion and bias. My answers would be met with scoffs, eye-rolling or just plain dismissal. In social or professional gatherings, no other comment or question would follow. No other inquiries about how was my growing up there? Or what was the culture like? Not even a comment about how much nicer the weather there might be! Those kind of non-responses made me wonder about people’s necessity for “othering” and its pervasiveness in this society.
What is the intention of someone asking these questions? What fuels the desire to learn the answer? And what are they going to do once they learn the answer?
To this day, I am asked one of those questions at least a couple of times a day. I talked to my classmates of different racial backgrounds, and I was very surprised to discover that so many people shared similar experiences. But our experience was made worse if we challenged the question or refused to answer it. We would then be perceived as “overly sensitive” for “overreacting” to a presumably very harmless question. Even people who were born and raised here in the United States, but whose race is not Caucasian, experience profound discomfort when asked where they were from. It was discouraging to hear that, but I felt validated and affirmed to know that others felt the same way.
I have now lived in the United States nearly half my life, and I decline to answer these questions when complete strangers ask. If it’s a friend or acquaintance, I sometimes jokingly say that I am half baked in Colombia and half baked in the United States. I am from here … and also from there. I am from the land of currulao, vallenato and cumbia as much as I am from the land of rock ’n’ roll. I often follow that with explaining how the question is emotionally and mentally draining for immigrants and their children.
“Where are you from?” seems innocuous, but it is a very loaded question. It shows that the asker needs to know in which category to place the hearer. It insinuates the hearer does not belong, that to be American he or she ought to speak and look a certain way. Is it a disrespectful question to ask? Well, yes and no. What is the intention of asking? What fuels your desire to learn the answers? And what are you going to do once you learn the answers?
It is selfish to ask this question merely to satisfy one’s curiosity, and it is extremely offensive if the intention is to show one’s superiority. But if you genuinely desire to seek connection or to learn about other ethnicities and cultures, spend some time with the person before asking. Allow them to talk and share their stories. “What is your cultural background?” “Where did you grow up?” or better yet “Where are you a local?” are better questions to ask afterwards. Questions like that allow the hearer to share stories about their rituals, relationships and restrictions – things that, as writer Taiye Selasi says, really tell you where someone is from. As Mark Gonzales says in his children’s book Yo Soy Muslim:
There are questions this world will ask
What are you? And where are you from?
On that day tell them this:
Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time.
I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams.
Ruth Jandeska, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Providence Health in Columbia, SC.
October 6, 2020
Micro-aggressions represent the subtle side of racism
By Charles Kibirige
A colleague asked me recently at lunchtime, “Charles, as someone who grew up in Africa and is now an American citizen, how would you describe your current racial experience in the USA? Has it changed since you came here?”
That was a chance to think about a subject I have talked about privately but never written about until now. I told my colleague that I feel more uncertain about my future today than when I first came to this country. What I hear and read in social media and the news have sowed seeds of doubt and uncertainty. I hope it will change, but it is as scary as it is disappointing.
Most of my experiences with race in the USA have been in the form of micro-aggressions, the everyday, subtle, intentional or unintentional interactions that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.
My very first experience happened back in 2003. I had been in the USA for two years, and I don’t know why it took that long, but it happened. I was a young priest invited to a family gathering in a predominantly white neighborhood, and my host called me to give me some tips. Essentially, he told me that the police might stop me for no reason other than being a black man in a white neighborhood. My host suggested I wear my official clerical dress to the party in order to avoid a surprise police check. He apologized, even as he stated that this was unfortunately true for anyone of my race. This was an early lesson in the history of race in the USA for me.
America is a country that has always held a promise of safety, freedom, and endless possibilities for someone like me, who grew up an orphan in a Third World nation and survived three devastating wars. In the twenty years since I came into this country, I have experienced some fulfilment of this promise, but my race still stands in the way of the full promise.
This brings me to micro-aggressions, from both friends and strangers. For instance, I am often asked “Where are you from?” or “Where did you learn to speak such good English?” The subtle message is clear: I am a foreigner. I usually respond by saying that it is not fair to expect me not to speak or write good English.
Another example was when an intern addressed me as “you people.” I summoned the educator in me and reminded the intern that I was an individual with a unique cultural heritage. I also reminded him that such attitude went against everything a professional chaplain is supposed to be. Another time, a clerk followed me around the store pretending to clean up something. I have seen this phenomenon on TV but never thought I would one day be a victim of such blatant profiling. I laugh it off often and ignore it eventually because it is so ridiculous.
But the worst of this attitude happened back in 2014 at a furniture store when a clerk said to my face, “Are you sure you can afford that furniture?” He made the shocking assumption about my financial status based on nothing other than my appearance. I sarcastically expressed how his attitude is such an asset to his company. I felt it important to speak up and speak out in the moment against this blatant stereotyping.
Race has never been a factor in where I chose to live or work or send our child to school, but I am frustrated to be reminded of it regularly. A little over a year ago, a fellow first grader told my daughter that she looks like poop. I know they were both kids, but kids do not live in a vacuum. I told the teacher that I would not tolerate harassment toward my daughter regardless of who propagated it. It is bad enough to know that you have little control over a situation. But it is even worse to feel like the only thing some people see about you is the color of your skin. It makes you feel invisible. I worry about how to navigate these challenges as I raise my daughter.
Olufunke Oba, a fellow African who is a professor of social work at the University of Regina in Canada, has written an article in which he shares some of his approaches to racism. I agree with him that I may not be able to change the world, but addressing micro-aggressions gently “in here” can affect the work we do “out there.” It is not enough that things happen to us, it is important that we reflect on them to make meaning of the experience and grow.
That is why when anything happens today, I have resolved to be more intentional in addressing the issue right away in a meaningful way instead of harboring fear or resentment. I ask questions to check out the intentions of the perceived micro-aggressor, so that moment becomes less of a confrontation and more of a learning opportunity – such as the intern who addressed me as “you people,” or such as my daughter’s teacher. It is important to address these issues in real time, because these moments hold the opportunity for learning and growth for both parties.
Charles Kibirige, BCC, is staff chaplain at Saint Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac, MI.
September 28, 2020
“Not from you”: Direct racism is still with us
By Maritza Ramos-Pratt
Answering a consult for a pre-surgery prayer, I went to the pre-op room. “Hello, this is Chaplain Maritza, may I come in?” I asked from outside the curtains. “Yes, you may,” a female voice answered.
I saw a man in his 60s, ready for surgery, and his wife and daughter at the bedside. “I am Chaplain Maritza and I am here because you requested a chaplain,” I said.
“Yes, we did,” said the wife, “but not from you! Not a Black chaplain!”
There was silence for few seconds. So many answers passed through my mind. “Slow down, Maritza,” I thought, remembering my CPE units. “It’s not about you.”
Then, aloud, I answered, “As you wish. But blessings come in different ways. You do not know what you missed. I will get you another chaplain. Have a blessed day.”
The wife and daughter were not a bit embarrassed, and I did not want to cause any distress to the patient, who was very quiet. Out of their room, I called a white CPE student to pray with them and told her that I would explain later.
That afternoon in the office, I debriefed with all four Hispanic chaplains, three CPE students, and my senior chaplain. I felt better having processed the experience. But it was a moment of truth for the students to realize that racism was still alive.
And for me, it was not the first time that something like that had happened. In my previous career as a hospital dietitian, I remember at least three times that white patients told me they did not want my services because I was Black – right to my face. All my degrees, certifications and licenses didn’t matter. In the hospital kitchen, about 90% of the employees were Black, and I felt at home among them.
I am a Black Hispanic woman who speaks Spanish and English with an accent. I was born and raised in a very low-income family, in a totally Black town in Puerto Rico. My father was a public transportation driver but his own boss. My mother had a sixth-grade education. She ironed clothes for a white family while keeping her own family united and strong.
But education and faith were very important for my father, who often told us, “No one can take this away from you.” My five sisters and one brother are currently working as an industrial engineer, two social workers, an executive secretary with the Puerto Rican government, a registered nurse, and a teacher.
The University of Puerto Rico was far from my town, and none of us had a car, so we had to take public transportation. Every morning, my mother would tell us, “You are beautiful, you are intelligent, and it does not matter what people say, you are a very special person.” It was her mantra. And we needed it, because the racism in Puerto Rico was silent and underground, but it was there. Many professors did not like Black students from my town.
After my graduation, I worked one year with the Puerto Rican government, spent 12 years in the Army dealing with my accent, and married my husband (a Black man from New York and career Army man). Our four sons always asked, “Are we Black or Puerto Rican?”
My answer was, “YES! We are Black Puerto Rican.” All my sons speak English without an accent, but I always spoke Spanish with them, since being bilingual would be an asset in their lives. Most summers, they spent two or three weeks in Puerto Rico with my family. I wanted them to recognize the importance of family (grandparents, aunts, cousins, new friends and neighbors) and most of all the town experience. Most of their friends in the States were Black until we moved to Florida, where they were also surrounded by a large Hispanic community at church, school, basketball games, and the neighborhood. They learned how to blend very well on both sides.
I am a board-certified chaplain, with a master’s degree in hospital administration, another master’s in theology, and a doctoral degree in hospital administration and leadership. But as I said, to some people, none of that matters. Sometimes I feel so frustrated. But I think about my mother’s words to us every morning, I say, “Mom, you were right,” and I keep on going.
September 22, 2020
Seeing grief but missing anger: A moment of cultural learning
By Jennifer W. Paquette
The young Black man raged in despair and anguish. His wife and firstborn child had died that morning. His wife had begun bleeding, and he took her to the community hospital near their house. The baby had spontaneously aborted, but his wife kept bleeding. “I told them there was something wrong with her, but no one would listen to me. No one!” he yelled. “They acted as if I wasn’t even there.”
The hospital had transferred her to the trauma center where I was working, but she died before she arrived. Now, the husband and ten or so family members were waiting for “the chaplain,” and their grief carried down the hallway. On my way to the room, one of the ED physicians commanded, “Get them quieted down. They’re too noisy and upsetting other patients.”
From the audible wails, I suspected this was a Black family. “It is how they grieve,” I told him. “They must be allowed to grieve in their own way. There is no stopping grief.” More than a little surprised by his directive, I was also irritated. This was a big-city trauma center that served a mostly Black population. The physicality of their cultural grieving was normal. They grieved as they prayed, their entire bodies participating in the movement of their souls.
I had history in Black culture, and perhaps for that reason, I believed myself to be more astute than I was. For the first six years of my life, I was raised by a Black woman, whom I loved dearly. Later, my family moved near Washington, D.C., a predominantly Black city where power and authority were vested in the white population. In college, I lived near a Black church. Their Sunday mornings of praise for Jesus came alive in their hymns, many of which were vestiges of slavery. I felt joy in their midst and an enthusiasm for Christ missing in my white Catholic church.
Years later, my CPE class reminded me often that where there was an older Black woman in the hospital, I would find her. And I feel driven to advocate for Black patients in a clinical setting.
But despite all that, I was blind to the underlying causes of that young father’s rage. It wasn’t until much later that I realized his wife’s color had alienated her from the clinical care she should have received. Also, I did not understand that the race of the young father prevented his voice from being heard. I understood the misery of his loss, but I failed to understand and support his outrage that his family was invisible merely because of the color of their skin – and that this was likely one more repetition of a lifelong pattern.
I do not ever want to be appalled again by my lack of insight in the moment. Since then, I have worked to be more intentional, especially in discovering the causes of events. I must examine more closely my actions, reactions, purposes, and motivations among communities of color. I must find my way into the depths of their experiences. I must be more aware of our separateness and seek the place where the boundaries fade and we are joined by our humanity.
Jennifer W. Paquette, BCC, is now retired and previously served as director of spiritual care at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle.
September 15, 2020
Beyond competence: Cultural humility means lifelong openness
By Nicholas Perkins
What qualities come to mind when you think about cultural humility? I think about self-awareness, lifelong learning, empathy, compassion, and the willingness to listen and receive feedback.
But I have seen plenty of the opposite behavior: A person calls the coronavirus the “Chinese” virus. Another says, “The shop that I took my car to was an assembly line of Mexicans. I bet there wasn’t a single person that spoke English.” Someone says, “I couldn’t find an Arab cab driver because they were all praying.” A Palestinian man invites a coworker to dinner (Persian Gulf War veteran) and asks, “How many Muslims did you kill with your sophisticated bombs?”
All of those comments depict microaggressions, painful questions, or remarks that involve stereotypes. But how should chaplains respond? After all, the effort to achieve chaplaincy certification should equip us to manage and never tolerate such hurtful comments. Would we use the competency of respect for the boundaries of others? Or the competency that encourages a chaplain to use professional authority appropriately? I ask because I value chaplaincy, and complicity through silence only perpetuates injustice.
When the concept of cultural humility was introduced to the fields of medicine and public health 30 years ago, it catalyzed fascinating and continuing discourse on whether cultural humility is, in fact, more important than working to become competent in other cultures. For me, incorporating cultural humility into spiritual care is just the first step, since I must also integrate it into my life. I must be open-minded enough to learn about another’s culture and to examine my beliefs.
I have traveled to and lived in various countries, and I learned to avoid making assumptions about others and being a know-it-all. I adopted a mindset that I use with patients and families: I respect that you are the expert on your life. I must wonder and remain curious. I do my best to suspend what I think about a person based upon generalizations about their culture. If I intend to incorporate authentic cultural humility into my life and spiritual care, I need to appreciate historical realities and respect the legacies of oppression and violence against certain groups of people.
Earlier, I mentioned a Palestinian man who had invited a Persian Gulf War veteran and colleague to his home for dinner. I was that colleague and am that veteran. I served four years on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy and did two six-month deployments into the Persian Gulf.
On another deployment, we received a distress signal in the South China Sea from a foreign container ship 300 miles away; a man had fallen from a high place aboard it and suffered life-threatening internal injuries. But an aircraft carrier can’t just leave its assigned operational area; that requires authorization from high-ranking officials. We waited and wondered if we’d be granted permission to help an injured stranger.
Six hours later, we changed course and barreled through treacherous seas to save this severely injured man’s life – a Palestinian. I remember the chaplain reading the story of the Good Samaritan as we raced to help him. We didn’t encounter him on the side of the road; we met him on the ocean’s rolling swells and beneath a brilliant moon. We valued his humanity and respected his culture, ethnicity, and religion. Our surgeons performed a life-saving operation, and our chaplains respected his Muslim faith. After he was stable, we flew him to a naval hospital in Japan.
I told that story to my Palestinian dinner host, hoping in vain that it would change his mind. But as a result of my experience on the ship, I discovered that every person has a story which connects to a unique history and that every human being deserves honor and respect. I stress respect and dignity in the prayers that I say for patients of color, since many may have been mistreated by terribly unjust and unfair practices.
Although that dinner party was difficult, it taught me to accept how I can act out of the wounded parts of my life. I learned that everyone has a responsibility to practice cultural humility and tolerance. I have learned to see the beaten and wounded Christ in the eyes of all people and to extend them affirmation and validation.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.
September 10, 2020
Interracial marriage offers firsthand look at racism – and numbness
By Daniel Waters
My wife and I have been married for 38 years. I am white and she is black. I grew up in a then-predominately white neighborhood in the south end of Toledo. My wife grew up in the predominately black south side of Chicago. We met at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, my wife’s first music teaching job out of college in Adrian, MI. I was directing a youth group playing music for Mass on Saturday evenings.
But as we fell in love, got married, and built a life together, I was forced to realize that racism is pervasive and systemic in our society. I am consistently treated differently when I am in public by myself than when we are in public together. And on reflection, I was saddened that I have learned to take it for granted. I do not even give it a thought when someone stares at us or makes vague disparaging comments behind our back, but just loud enough to hear. I have learned to live with all of it. That is so incredibly sad, and it is very wrong. When I learn to live with things like being searched every time we travel to Canada to enjoy the Stratford Theatre Festival, or the border agent asks if we are married and clearly implies “you are disgusting” – I become part of the problem. That was a hard thing for me to admit to myself.
Sometimes racist comments are made out of ignorance, but our country and our church have grappled with this issue for decades. Ignorance is simply not a valid excuse. Even if someone claims that the comments are “just in fun” or “not meant to hurt anyone,” all racism is hurtful.
For many African-Americans, leaning to live with it is not uncommon. My brother-in-law tells me that there are so many injustices, it is impossible to address every hurt, even in a single day. He basically said he chooses his battles.
I have tried to approach the problem with humility, but directly and firmly. The change must be ongoing. One practical step for me was to share this reflection with our entire parish in a homily one weekend. Afterward, I was heartened by the number of written notes, emails and comments I received. Over the years, there has been reconciliation and change in some people, maybe simply due to the longevity of our marriage and our continued service to the community. Two parishioners in particular wrote in detail about taking up the challenge of looking inside themselves, and offered gratitude for us.
In the Trinity, the thought of the Father emptying himself completely to the Son, and in turn Son emptying back to Father with the overflowing love of the Holy Spirit, gives us a vision of true community. We speak of God as the definition of love. Perhaps we can speak of the Trinity as the definition of community – and racism is an utter break in that community.
How do we make that vision of true community a reality? As a start, I humbly offer my experience of looking deep inside and facing a hard truth. It is only when each one of us is willing to look deep inside can we have the unfailing commitment to a bold difference. To never tolerate filth of racism even in its most subtle form. Our country is better than that, our Church is better than that, and our world is better than that.
Deacon Daniel Waters, BCC, is manager of mission and spiritual care at Bon Secours Mercy Health St. Charles Hospital in Oregon, OH.
September 8, 2020
Coronavirus: A report from Houston
As the coronavirus spreads in irregular waves across the country, Houston has been one of the most hard-hit areas this summer, while other regions wonder if they will be next. Vision editor David Lewellen recently interviewed NACC member Nannette Coons via email about the crisis in her area. Ms. Coons coordinates regional pastoral care and pastoral visitors (trained volunteers) in the Conroe/Woodlands region for the Catholic Chaplain Corps of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, as well as several hospitals of the Texas Medical Center and numerous senior living facilities and hospice care facilities. Chaplains employed by the archdiocese provide spiritual care to Catholic patients in the larger Texas Medical Center facilities, and to all the patients in the regional facilities.
What were your responsibilities in pre-Covid times?
Before the pandemic, most of my ministry was to work with pastoral visitors, in training, enrichment and mentorship. I also developed strong relationships with hospital spiritual care staff, as well as facility administrators. I would occasionally, through referrals, meet with patients and families, especially when there was a high level of spiritual distress or questioning. The chaplains in the Medical Center were more hands-on, meeting with Catholic patients daily, working with pastoral visitors in their respective facilities, and coordinating sacramental needs.
In the first few months of the pandemic, how did your routines change? How were patients, family and staff coping?
Immediately, the hospitals and facilities became closed to pastoral visitors, and to me. Two of our hospitals, and all our senior living facilities, were closed to all clergy, including our priests. The other hospitals no longer allowed priest visits unless a patient was dying. So understandably, family and staff stress levels increased.
And then what about the last month or two, when Houston was in the news as one of the hardest-hit areas in the country?
We quickly recognized that training spiritual care staff on Catholic needs, especially those who were not Catholic, was a priority. We developed written resources they could utilize or give to families. We did virtual training for staff in how to effectively use our published items such as spiritual communion cards, prayers for the dying or after death, information on anointing of the sick. We also served as a sounding board for chaplains tending to these spiritual needs. Instead of caring for these needs ourselves, we empowered spiritual care staff to take care of it on their own.
What has been the hardest thing to handle?
Since sacramental care, as well as the presence of a Catholic spiritual caregiver, was being denied, we developed strategies for pastoral care from the hallway, through a window, over the phone or tablet. Families were in great distress, not always understanding that we could not attend to their needs in person, especially anointing of the sick. In addition, pastoral visitors were in grief over their lost ministry, hungering for the lost chance to minister in this pandemic.
What has been easier than you expected?
Our pastoral visitors developed some creative ways of providing ministry in these facilities. We were able to offer ongoing support, enrichment and training through the virtual medium and have had record attendance.
Did news from New York or other prior hot spots help you and your colleagues?
Our archdiocese was hit as quickly as these hot spots, so, like them, we were figuring things out as we went along. We learned a lot by participating in NACC collaborative calls and webinars. It was helpful to hear how others were handling the pandemic, as well as feeling a sense of camaraderie in the valley.
What would you tell other areas that see a surge beginning?
Be as flexible as possible. Remain open to new ways of doing things. Look at this as an opportunity for creativity and allow yourself to be surprised at the wonderful new ways of doing ministry.
In the pandemic, do you see any opportunities or shoots of new growth?
We have developed creative ways of spiritually supporting staff. We developed a care bag, with prepackaged snacks, gum, breath mints, plus handwritten cards of support. We also created a special staff prayer card, focusing on the need to intentionally pause and breathe at least every three hours. Pastoral visitors sewed and prayed over surgical caps (staff is calling them “prayer caps”).
Because we cannot always see families in the hospital, we now are calling them more frequently, which has extended the connection beyond the hospital room. We are making good use of virtual tools, using tablets, smartphones, and computers to create a stronger connection. Local hospitals are placing tablets in every patient’s room. We are being asked to recommend Catholic apps to enhance spiritual care.
Training and ongoing education looks completely different. We are learning to use virtual meeting tools to host sessions that before had to focus on pastoral visitors in a particular area of the archdiocese, but now people all over the region can participate.
September 2, 2020
White people, recognize the racist water we swim in
By Kevin S. Crowder
I was raised to be a racist.
Transparency is hard. It involves risk. It involves trust. Today I am going to break one of the rules of white privilege: I am going to be racially vulnerable in a racially inclusive conversation.
Before I ever knew it was happening, I experienced privilege by being white. I continue to be privileged by being an educated white man with an American passport. I am privileged by being in the dominant religion (Christianity) in America. Being cisgender and straight have also privileged me not to deal with stuff if I preferred not to deal with it.
But I recognize my need to deal with stuff. I am learning. I am on a journey with my friends of color. I get it wrong. According to Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, I’ve gotten most of it wrong, most of the time, in spite of my efforts not to. I don’t want to let down my colleagues or profession, but I especially don’t want to let down my friends of color. The truth is, though, I’ve been letting them down my whole life. I just did not see it. I just did not know it.
I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. I attended public schools in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Every year at the beginning of school, I watched the teachers complete a card documenting the race and ethnicity of children in the classroom to demonstrate compliance with the court order. No children of color lived in my neighborhood. In fact, I was in high school before I knew where any person of color lived. The schools may have been integrated, but our lives were separate and definitely not equal, not in Arkansas.
As I said, I was raised to be a racist. I am certain my parents did not do this on purpose, but they could not see the racism in which they swam – because they had not been socialized to see it. I had three parents most of my life. Two of them worked at not being racist, but all three occasionally denied their racism, like virtually every white person I know. In spite of their protestations to the contrary, I heard things no child should hear. The pet of an extended family member was named a common racial slur. The so-called humor which I heard both at home and in the media was inappropriate, insidious, even poisonous. If you are white and at least 50 years old, I bet you heard it too. I could go on.
That was some of the obvious, conscious racism I saw, and I knew it was wrong. But for most of my life, I was blind to the unconscious attitudes, biases, actions, and inactions that I inherited. Like too many white people, I was socialized to believe that I could not have racist views if my intent was pure. White people, we can have the best of intentions, not mean anything bad … and still commit acts of racism and micro-aggressions that virtually any person of color would identify instantly! We are all swimming in racism. None of us created it, but all too often we contribute to it with our silence. Every time we think, act, or speak in white-normative ways, we demonstrate our unconscious bias.
I see this in the hospital every time a white clinician asks the chaplain, “Can’t you quiet them down?” referring to a grieving family of any race. The problem is not the volume of the grief. The real problem (aside from inadequate sound dampening) is the staff’s expectation that grieving be done quietly. Whether the professional staff have white-normative or quiet-normative expectations, persons of color are often on the receiving end of an unfair bias. (I am not assuming that persons of color grieve loudly or that people who grieve loudly are persons of color. But in my experience, when a white clinician calls a chaplain for a loudly grieving family, that family is often not white.)
White allies need to educate ourselves, but not at the expense of our black and brown colleagues and friends. Our ignorance is our own problem to mitigate. We need to understand the insidious but subtle barriers that hold back all people of color. We need to read James Cone, Howard Thurman, Peggy McIntosh, Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, John Lewis, and others, but reading is not enough.
This is not a time to say, “But I have a black friend!” This is a time to invest in the lives of persons of color, clergy of color, chaplains of color in real, tangible, and emotionally honest ways.
All is not lost. Knowledge really is power. Self-knowledge can lead to changes of beliefs, attitudes, and biases. We can decide to be otherwise. We can and must look for our own micro-aggressions. We can and must look for systemic racism. When we find it, we must do something about it. If we see it all around us, our calling, our vocation, our profession demands that we take a moral stand, that we take decisive action to right past wrongs.
I suggest we look for opportunities to support and encourage persons of color personally and professionally. We need to seek ways to be anti-racist, even if from time to time, maybe even regularly, we fail. But when we fail, we recommit ourselves to a common anti-racist future.
Kevin S. Crowder, BCC, is an ACPE certified educator at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
August 28, 2020
Unpacking a knapsack full of privileges
By Sheri Bartlett Browne
I recently listened to a white Catholic deacon sermonizing on today’s evils — but he never named any of them. Without guidance, what were the white parishioners thinking? Given the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, I hoped everyone was thinking about the scourge of racism. But for most of us, it will take conscious awareness to begin to face this evil. If you are white like me, I pray that such contemplation will lead you to self-awareness, commitment to antiracism, and advocacy for justice.
One place to begin is the concept of implicit bias. Studies suggest that we bring to human interactions an array of unconscious messages about others. Implicit biases about race have a momentous impact on us. Unsurprisingly, individuals who took a visual sorting test on race from Harvard’s Project Implicit overwhelmingly linked images of white people to positive words (joyous, excitement) while associating images of Black people to negative ones (bothersome, selfish). These linkages held true regardless of the test taker’s race.
What should we do with this troubling information? Once we are aware of our unconscious prejudices, I suggest that a white person’s next step is to come to grips with white privilege.
The term may seem like amorphous academic-speak, labeling good people as racist when they believe they are not. But two things come to mind. One is the writing of journalist Isabel Wilkerson, who asks us to envision an old house that we’ve inherited. We might not have been around when it was constructed, but it’s ours now. We are responsible for repairs, from the plumbing to the roof. If we don’t fix the broken-down house that racism built, who will?
Second is a reminder from historian Ibram X. Kendi: “The heartbeat of racism is denial.” If your first inclination is to deny your prejudices and the effect they have on our social systems, then I urge you to look again. After taking the Implicit Bias test for race and not liking the results, I dove deeper into white privilege, and what I found has made me think differently about every interaction.
White privilege, according to antiracist advocate Peggy McIntosh, is like a knapsack full of items for life’s journey. If you are white, yours is filled with unearned assets. They are keys that you did not ask for, but they unlock privileges solely because of your race. Here are a few assets that I found in my white healthcare chaplain knapsack:
- Responding to on-call crises at night, I never fear being stopped by the police when driving to the hospital.
- Confused in the parking garage, I will seek out, rather than avoid, hospital security. The guard has never asked, “What are you doing here?”
- Entering the hospital, I feel I belong. Art, background music, and quiet spaces reflect positively on my Anglo-European heritage.
- The medical teams look like me. I am welcomed into the unit and feel comfortable working there.
- Praying in an empty chapel at 3 a.m., my presence is not a matter of concern.
If you are a white chaplain, you could probably make a similar list. These privileges are not easy to name or discard, but awareness brings new opportunities for antiracist advocacy. Here are some ideas:
- Collaborate with your colleagues to organize an implicit bias training.
- Put racism on your meeting agenda and lead a conversation about it.
- Work together to develop an antiracist covenant and share it with other units.
- Envision a more inclusive and welcoming chapel. How can you help make these changes?
- Join a community forum about systemic racism and listen to the voices of your Black neighbors.
As Catholic Christians we are called to antiracist praxis. Antiracism is embedded in Catholic social teaching, offering a roadmap for our journey. Make room in your knapsack for those commitments, such as
- The preferential option for the marginalized. Listen to and advocate for those who have been marginalized by racist thinking, violence, and disenfranchisement.
- Human dignity: How has historical, structural racism impacted this person, their relationships with others, and our communities?
- Reverence. The sin of racism perverts the belief that all people are created in the image of God. Do your actions attest to the sacredness of others?
- Solidarity. Stand unwaveringly with others to eradicate structural inequalities in healthcare, housing, education, and employment.
These changes are not easy, but that is really the point. If they were easy, we would have eradicated racist thinking and actions decades ago. Now, it’s time to repack our knapsacks with these commitments to justice. May they challenge and inspire you, open new doors, create bridges, and heal deep wounds on your antiracist journey.
Sheri Bartlett Browne, BCC, is professor of history at Tennessee State University in Nashville, TN.
August 27, 2020
It’s time to talk about race
By David Lewellen
2020 has been an eventful year, to say the least. Since March, our Vision blog has tried to keep the NACC’s members and friends up to date with the coronavirus pandemic and with its many secondary effects.
But another crisis is rolling through our country that demands our attention — or rather, a long-existing crisis has reached the attention of people who were previously able to ignore it. Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May, the systemic racism of American society has pushed its way to the front of our national agenda and has stayed there — sustained, very unfortunately, by events such as the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wis., police officers, 30 miles from NACC headquarters.
In the coming months, our Vision blog will take a close look at racism, particularly within our own fields of spiritual care and healthcare. We will do our best to examine our underlying assumptions, to recognize and question white privilege, to use our prophetic voices and to apply Catholic social teaching to the moment that we are in.
We will post our first article tomorrow, but we need to hear from all of you. If you have ideas for articles about disparity in treatment, structural inequalities, barriers to access, representation within our profession, or other topics — or if you have had spiritual care encounters that clarified the issues for you — we would like to hear from you. Please send a summary of your idea to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you in advance, and let’s try to make a difference.
August 20, 2020
Patients who can’t communicate have spiritual needs, too
Linda S. Golding and Walter Dixon, Spiritual Care for Non-Communicative Patients: A Guidebook. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.
By Christina Mayer
As a younger chaplain, I wondered if my presence in a non-communicative patient’s room would even matter. Can patients who cannot speak, write, or share non-verbal cues even hear me? Would my time be better spent ministering to communicative patients? What if a nurse saw me sitting quietly with a non-communicative patient, or even talking or humming—would I be questioned or judged?
Consider these scenarios:
Scenario 1: Death was imminent. Although the patient, an elderly woman, was COVID-negative, the hospital had imposed a strict visitation policy. I escorted family members to the patient’s room one by one, informing them that their loved one was non-communicative, but could most likely hear us and feel our touch. Entering the room, I said, “Mrs. J., I am here with your granddaughter, Molly. Molly may want to talk to you, or hold your hand, pray with you, or even sit silently. She is sitting in a chair on your left side. I will leave you two alone for a few minutes.” I left the room, and the charge nurse called me over. She showed me a wall of monitors and pointed to lines on the screen. “When the patient was alone, the line was like this,” she said, making a horizontal sweep with her hand, “but when you and the visitor entered the room just now, the line went up. Her heart started beating again.”
Scenario 2: A homeless patient was very ill, greatly medicated, and probably asleep or even unconscious. But I knocked, called the patient’s name, and asked to enter. In my usual voice, I clearly said, “Mr. K., I am Chaplain Chris. Your nurse, Jess, who has been caring for you thought you might like a visit. I am sitting in a chair at the foot of your bed. I plan to be here for a few minutes, and I hope that’s all right with you.” I continued: “I want you to know that your nurse cares about you, and I do, too. I want you to know that you are a wonderful creation.” Before leaving the patient’s room, I thanked him and wished him peace.
In Scenario 1, would my younger self have merely ministered to the patient’s visitors, escorted them in, and brushed past the patient herself? In Scenario 2, would my younger self have even visited the patient? Because I read Spiritual Care for Non-Communicative Patients: A Guidebook by Linda S. Golding and Walter Dixon, I learned to respond to patients’ needs more effectively. I learned that a chaplain’s presence does indeed matter in these situations.
There is a reason this book is called a guidebook, for it kindly and gently guides chaplains to reflect on obstacles, fears, and concerns — before, during, and after working with non-communicative patients. Similar to CPE, this book encourages a pre-visit visualization/actual visit/post-visit reflection methodology.
Happily, this book also includes practical exercises, worksheets, small group activities and case studies. It encourages us to use all of our senses while in the patient’s room, as we hear the beeps and buzzes, smell the odors, and see the tubes and gowns and patient’s pallor. Cultivating presence and embracing stillness are also key. The book encourages shadowing nurses to see how they interact with non-communicative patients.
Because chaplaincy is becoming so research-driven, I would have enjoyed seeing research studies of non-communicative patients. And I would have enjoyed reading some verbatims or narratives that enact some of the suggestions.
And our new COVID era presents new obstacles in these situations, since in most systems we cannot enter the patients’ rooms, or if we do, it requires full PPE. In systems where those supplies are rationed, it may be harder to justify a visit to a non-communicative patient.
Even so, my ministry has benefited from this book. The one thought that stays with me is summed up in one chaplain’s post-visit reflection: “To spend regular time with a patient who does not respond … is to trust, and even to quietly suggest to those witnessing, that there is always more going on than meets the eye.”
Christina Mayer is a chaplain at Mercy Hospital & Medical Center, Chicago, IL.
August 14, 2020
Pandemic time is chrysalis stage to create something new
By Anne Millington
The coronavirus has destroyed our feelings of safety and security. We fear for our country, our work, our families, our health. We dream of life once we get “through this,” knowing full well that life has changed forever. Indeed, as Lawrence Wright recently noted in The New Yorker, the Black Death, the Spanish flu and other plagues and pandemics all ushered in profound social change. As we live through today’s coronavirus pandemic, we see similar profound changes unfolding around us.
But life is continuing, and it is transforming into something new. If we had been in a caterpillar stage before the virus hit, we are now chrysalises. Our insides have begun to dissolve and create the fluids that will become the wings and body of the butterfly. Indeed, our insides have become what Kathleen A. Brehony, author of Awakening at Midlife, calls “caterbutter stew.”
This place is unsettling, even downright scary. Life as we knew it has melted down and dissolved, and the future appears murky and uncertain. We grieve the life form we have left behind, and we fear for the future.
Perhaps more difficult, this place can also feel barren. As chaplains, we are called to live examined lives, to reflect theologically on life around us. Distracted and anxious, it may be hard to pray, let alone offer spiritual insight and direction for others. But we are not alone; fiction writers today are experiencing distraction and writer’s block. As Clea Simon wrote in The Boston Globe, “For many writers, the subconscious, where so much plotting and character-building happens, has been taken over by a silent screaming panic.” Poets, too, have difficulty during these distracted, nervous and fearful times. A colleague recently quoted William Wordsworth, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
And yet, as chaplains, we remain called to accompany others during this time, even as our insides are caterbutter stew. Those of us in hospitals put on our masks and our face shields and do our best to be present to the sick, the terrified and the dying. Those of us working from home faithfully make our phone calls, doing our best to offer messages of hope and healing to patients and their loved ones. We are needed more than ever, as behavioral health-related admissions are growing, stress-related cardiac situations are on the rise, and staff are more fatigued and worried.
Lately, I have been praying that God will hold me together on the outside when I feel shaky on the inside. That God will continue to give me the strength to serve and to comfort during this time when traditional spiritual supports and gatherings have been postponed or replaced by Zoom calls and webinars. When prayer may seem brittle and rote, when meditation feels mired in distraction, I pray that God will strengthen me from the outside in.
Indeed, I am choosing to trust in a God whose goodness does not depend on my efforts at all. I am choosing to trust in God’s strength rather than in my own. As I walk the corridors of both hospital and life, I seek to draw hope from Psalm 131: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child I am content. Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.”
All things pass, even pandemics, and someday we will emerge from our collective chrysalis into a new world with a new social order. Some things will be lost, some things will be found. I pray that I will bear witness to how God kept my outsides strong and my walk faithful, and I pray that we will all emerge with a deeper trust in God’s healing transformation.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.
August 11, 2020
Patients can reframe suffering as chance to make meaning
By Mary T. Tracy
“What all have I been missing? That is what I want to know.”
The 16-year-old sitting up in bed, only a couple of days away from being discharged to home, was finally feeling well enough to ponder the six weeks or so he had been struggling against COVID-19. A successful athlete, previously healthy and with no known underlying conditions, he struggled first to understand how he became sick at all, and then how he became sick enough to need weeks of life support and intensive care.
But I felt unprepared to respond to his question. We were out of the bare-knuckled praying phase, the N95-masked, covered from head to foot in PPE, shouting over the din of life-support machines phase. I had personally witnessed this young man rolled in a wheelchair, triumphantly, from the ICU to the step-down unit, staff lined up on all sides cheering. I had also watched him take his first steps with a walker while a therapist and nurse stood by with a chair if he stumbled. So many incremental steps marking progress. And yet, his question surprised me.
After a bit of a pause, I asked “Have you been in touch with friends recently?”
“Yes, my friends have been sending lots of stuff,” he said, gesturing to the impressive array of gifts, snacks, and colorful notes. “I haven’t had much energy for actual conversations, but I know lots of people are thinking of me, praying for me.”
I commended the young man for having such a great personal community, far greater than he could see at the moment. Then, after a moment of silent prayer to clarify my own thoughts, I asked if he was worried about having missed something in particular, like the Black Lives Matter protests. He waved this aside, briefly indicating that he understood the growing social awareness. In an instant, I was reminded of how the younger generations show such promise of chipping away at systemic injustices.
“That’s good,” I said aloud. “But do you know something? I think your friends might be just as interested in what you’ve been going through in the last six weeks.”
(I was thinking of the scene from a recent drama about the British royal family, in which Prince Philip meets with the U.S. astronauts who were the first to land on the moon. When he breathlessly asked the astronauts about their experience, they stumbled through laconic responses that clearly disappointed him. But then, with new enthusiasm, the astronauts asked the prince what it was like to be married to the Queen of England! Similarly, I thought, this young man might seem to his friends like an explorer who had been somewhere very few had ever been – and had fortunately escaped tell the tale.)
“Spend some time thinking about what this experience has meant to you,” I said. “Even now, you can start considering how and with whom you would like to share it.”
He looked down, silent, as if considering a whole new perspective on his experience. “What do you remember?” I asked. “You might want to start writing it down, to help yourself identify and process it.”
This inspired me to ask various colleagues for interdisciplinary perspectives on how to advise a survivor of such a traumatic experience. A therapist recommended Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and in the months since then I have recommended it to countless patients, family members, friends and colleagues. It is a particularly relevant and inspiring book in this time of massive collective grief, outrage, despair, hope, and social change.
Frankl gives a brief account of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, followed by a briefer analysis of the experience. He provides a generosity of spirit, an irrepressible hope – or “tragic optimism” as he puts it – grounded in the conviction that “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” He later expands: “The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. … We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something [such as goodness, truth and beauty] or encountering [and loving] someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” This third source of meaning is what he spends most of the book, describing by his words as well as by his very life and example.
Post-traumatic growth studies build on this notion of the meaning of life amidst suffering, adding the importance of storytelling and community to the process of meaning-making. It is a notion that continues to inspire me to follow my own advice, happily borrowed from Frankl, to the young man recovering from COVID-19 and a six-week hole in his conscious memory: May I keep paying attention to the meaning of my own life, small as it may be, and trust that God is working through all of it.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Inova Fairfax Medical Center and Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.
August 4, 2020
Virtual chaplain circle offers support in time of loss
By Sr. Frances Smalkowski
My 13 years of collaborative ministry with Rev. Paul Francis Merry were incredibly memorable gifts. I can never thank God as I ought. But our work together came to an end when he died of cancer on July 15.
It was hard to witness Fr. Paul’s ongoing weakening from his illness, and to miss him in the ebb and flow of our pastoral ministry as the coronavirus took hold. But even as he was receiving chemotherapy, he tried to stay connected to our ministry through our telephone calls.
Through his last months, I tried to be present to him as he would want, but I struggled with letting him go from a distance. And distance was a similar problem for me at work, since I was only able to communicate with residents by phone, and many of them had no phone or were unable to use it.
But who could I talk with when Fr. Paul, my go-to person, was no longer available? Who to share my frustration with, besides with God in my daily prayer? I honestly did not even know I was asking myself this question when I found an answer. With the COVID-19 crisis, NACC initiated regular conference calls/Zoom meetings, and I felt drawn to participate. I found a place where I could share with other chaplains, be understood, and learn from them as this virus spread.
Though I joked about being addicted to the weekly calls, I did find them very meaningful and supportive. In no way did I feel alone from week to week as I tried to discern God’s will in all the confusion and regular changes of directives.
My chaplain colleagues were there for me not only through this coronavirus journey. They were present to me the very day of Fr. Paul’s death. I had hesitated to join the call on grief and self-care, but was grateful for the acceptance and caring that I received. If ever I had second thoughts about the value of virtual ministry, I certainly had a change of mind and heart through all the calls I was part of!
In the January 2007 issue of Vision, I reflected on the death and dying of Fr. Paul’s mentor, with whom I worked for 15 years. But those challenges were different – I was at least able to be involved with the residents as my priest-colleague was dying. Today, I can’t even visit on the units.
The change to virtual ministry to others, as well as to myself, is still in some ways mystifying to this old school chaplain. But I am grateful to Virginia Day and nurse-chaplain network for all their kind support; to Ramune Franitza for her sensitive and thoughtful messages; and to David Lichter for his shared memories of Fr. Paul Merry.
Sr. Frances Smalkowski, CSFN, BCC, PMHCNS-BC (retired) is currently director of pastoral care at St. John Paul II Center in Danbury, CT, where she has been ministering for 36 years in various positions.
July 28, 2020
We need new rituals to acknowledge our losses
By Dawn Mayer
We have been missing so many things these past months. In our family, my nephew’s wedding scheduled for March has been postponed. Another nephew’s graduation from college was done virtually with the diploma coming in the mail. Family vacations were scheduled, canceled, rescheduled and now permanently on hold. The rhythms and routines that make up our lives — we are missing them all.
But many more profound experiences have also shaped this time. In the past three months, two of my friends have died. Both of them had a few short weeks from diagnosis to death. There were no visits to the hospital, and the moments and rituals that usually accompany the death did not happen. One had a funeral “parade” drive by the family home; the other had a handful of people at a small chapel in the cemetery.
In our long-term care communities, these past months have been especially challenging. In addition to all the necessary restrictions and new protocols to keep people safe, the rhythms of everyday life have changed. As we have journeyed with our residents, they have been missing their visits with their loved ones. They have missed sitting and talking with their dinner companions. They have missed attending Mass and other opportunities to gather in prayer and fellowship. And, our residents have also known the pain of the loss of family members and friends.
In all these experiences, it has been especially disorienting to not know how to express our feelings of loss. When so many couples had to postpone wedding plans, when thousands of students did not hear their name called out at graduation, when we have all experienced the disappointment of plans not unfolding as anticipated … how do we acknowledge the loss? How can we express our grief?
I believe it is important to ritualize and acknowledge this time. On my nephew’s wedding day, our family gathered via Zoom to celebrate and honor their commitment, in hope that sometime in the near future we would all be gathered around them. The gift of technology has helped to fill in the voids of special moments. On Easter Sunday, I sat alone in my family room watching Andrea Bocelli sing Amazing Grace to an empty square at Duomo di Milano, which normally would be filled with people. I wept … partly because of the beauty of that moment and partly because it so emphasized our aloneness. It was an important ritual on that Easter day.
Especially for those who have lost loved ones during this time, the grief and loss has even been more profound. The gatherings of family and friends, the rituals of the Church which seek to cover the bereaved in comfort and peace, need to be re-imagined for this time and this moment. Our communities have begun small rituals to help our staff and our residents acknowledge their grief and loss. Names of deceased loved ones are written on angels that are placed on a tree. This ritual, meant for an All Souls’ Day Mass, is now being used throughout the year.
Prayer boards were constructed so that staff could write their prayers for their own concerns or in remembrance of a resident or other loved one. These boards were placed in public areas, as a reminder that staff are not alone in their grief. Each community is making paper bands with the names of all the residents and staff on them. As they link them together, we are reminded that we are indeed, all in this together. At a time in the future, when this storm has passed, we hope to publically burn these chains and use the ashes as we plant a new tree, reminding us that life does indeed go on and it can and will be beautiful.
Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will read about this time. Our world is being radically reshaped. We are aware of all the challenges, but there are blessings from this time, new learnings that will be upon us to incorporate. As we move forward, we will intentionally need to develop new ways to acknowledge our losses, from the simple things we have missed to the profound loss of people we love. While grief and loss are a solitary journey, it is more important than ever to help one another know that we are not alone. Brighter days will be ahead, but at this moment, we need each other to point to the places of light and hope.
Dawn Mayer is vice president of mission integration and pastoral care for Franciscan Ministries, sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago.
July 21, 2020
Autobiographical book serves as introduction to Ignatian spirituality
Becky Eldredge, The Inner Chapel. Embracing the Promises of God. Loyola Press, Chicago, 2020.
By John Gillman
The Inner Chapel is both an account of the author’s close relationship with her beloved grandfather and a multifaceted reflection on Ignatian spirituality. For almost 20 years, Eldredge has served as a spiritual director and a retreat leader. She is a married Roman Catholic layperson who has lived much of her life in Baton Rouge. In this largely autobiographical narrative she writes about her relationship with her husband and her two children, but most of her attention is on her 18-month journey with her dying grandfather.
The book fulfills a promise she made to her grandfather to tell others about God’s love and that they are never alone. Part I consists of six chapters under the heading “The Inner Chapel,” and Part 2, “Embracing the Promises of God,” includes nine chapters. At the end of each chapter, Eldredge invites the reader to “go to the inner chapel,” that interior personal space where God dwells, where one’s relationship with Jesus is nourished, and where life in the Spirit is embraced. In these personal invitations, the author offers several practical recommendations such as creating a spiritual autobiography, utilizing Ignatian contemplation, creating rituals of rest, and discovering God’s unique call to each person. Following these she provides a list of Scripture passages under the rubric “Embracing the Promises of God.”
Throughout the book Eldredge intersperses vignettes of her interaction with directees, examples from ordinary life such as how to make crawfish étouffée (a Cajun dish she learned from her grandmother), and references to some personal challenges. Without elaborating she notes that some of her “greatest angst … comes from shifts in a family system.”
I found it curious that while her grandparents figures prominently in the narrative, the author is almost completely silent about her parents. Observing that “one of life’s greatest agonies is the untold story,” she notes in passing that she has endured “seasons of suffering while desperately longing for someone to understand what I was going through.” For her own reasons, Eldredge has chosen, aside from an occasional reference, to let her seasons of suffering remain part of her untold story, at least for her readers.
The colloquial style makes this narrative easy to read. For those unfamiliar with Ignatian spirituality, Eldredge’s reflections serve as a helpful introduction.
John Gillman, ACPE certified educator, is a lecturer in religious studies at San Diego State University and the Franciscan School of Theology.
July 15, 2020
Being present with no agenda helps in grief – and other situations
By Blair Holtey
Back in my college years, I was given a challenging assignment to write a paper on “grief.” I didn’t know what grief was, let alone know how to start the crazy thing. Coincidentally, a friend told me that a guest speaker would be talking about end of life the next day. I had nothing to lose, so I went.
So I finished my paper on grief. In the reference section, I wrote, “Interview with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.”
My teacher wrote in red, “Must actually have been present to interview a person in order to write ‘interviewed.’” When I told my professor that I had met her backstage before her presentation, he couldn’t believe it. But I had it on tape. I had no clue who she was at the time. My teacher was still trying to wrap his head around how I got the interview. When I told him, “I just asked,” he still couldn’t believe it!
If I learned anything that day, in the presence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it was that one must be present to get through grief. It is the most difficult of feelings I think I’ve ever, ever experienced, and yet so profound!
People often say, “What happens to me? What can I expect to happen when I die?” As if being a chaplain places me in a position of such knowledge. But it finally occurred to me, after thinking about it for years, that people really aren’t asking “what”; they just need to process. We all know we’re going to die, but most of us don’t get to interview with it, listen to it, talk about the “great it.”
My grandmother never got the opportunity to sit down and interview death. She didn’t get to read about it or study it; she just grieved through several deaths (mother, spouse and son) in a very short period of time. She talked about it once in a while and, perhaps, she dealt with grief in her own way, by lighting candles. I’ll never know because we didn’t talk too much about it. She had to pull herself together and move forward with her family.
I experienced grief, not knowing it was such, when my hamster died. Peaches was the first living thing that I remember caring about and lost to death. I even had a little funeral for him and placed his body in a shoe box, in terms I heard in an old Western, “To give’m a proper burial.”
I share these thoughts because it has occurred to me that there are at least two important aspects to getting through grief. When offering grief support to another person, visit with no preconceived notions. If they hurt, they hurt. In his book “Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart,” Dr. Kenneth Hauck emphasizes that “Planning ahead of time how your interaction with a hurting person ought to go is very unproductive.”
Secondly, don’t let yourself get in the way of helping someone get through their grief. Be comfortable with your discomfort. Otherwise, you may be a stumbling block in the potential progress of healing. Like the unsuspecting young lad that I was, I probably got an interview and inside information from Ms. Ross because I didn’t have an agenda and didn’t let anxiety (although I didn’t know I should have any) get in the way. One must be present!
Blair Holtey, BCC, is spiritual care coordinator at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, FL.
July 7, 2020
Grieving for our pre-pandemic life is normal
By Catherine Butler
Is there a formula for grief, I wondered? Is there some reliable counsel a chaplain can give that will work for almost anyone? Actually, my research revealed that it’s far more complicated. Grief is complex and confusing. There are so many variables surrounding grief, it is impossible to define it precisely. In its simplest form, grief is a result of loss.
Each individual experiences loss differently, plus there are different types of loss. Every loss has a meaning; that meaning is different to each person, but any loss triggers some kind of grief. The good news is that most people are resilient and come through the grief process safe and sound.
For a good read about grief, I recommend The Other Side of Sadness, What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Author George A. Bonanno offers a different perspective on the five stages of grief. His research suggests that human beings are more resilient than once believed to be, and that when faced with grief and loss, we are made to move on.
Together and separately, we all are experiencing grief in recent months – grieving the loss of life as we knew it. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I stay home more than I used to; my family thinks I am contagious because I work in healthcare. FaceTime and Zoom meetings were fun in April, but the feeling changed over May and June. We miss face-to-face communication. I have enjoyed making empathetic connections with staff over similar feelings of disconnection from their families; it helps to talk about it.
Individually, staff is connected because we belong to the same system. Separately, each of us try to manage the weight of each loss. Collectively, we stand together in one system of grief. I carry around a quote by St. Francis de Sales to share with staff and/or patients in anticipatory grief: “The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
Even so, I sometimes feel a weight of dread thinking about how everything will turn out. I try and stay positively hopeful, but as I walk through the hospital hallways, I feel heaviness in the air. I see the stress in staff, patients, and families. And maybe some of you have convinced yourself that your headache or your fatigue is just stress. But the pandemic is more. Look deeper. You, my dear, are grieving. You will get through this. Grief is natural; it is perfectly normal to feel the way you are feeling. You are much stronger and more resilient than you realize, I tell the staffers at my workplace. Life feels out of balance and strange. You miss the old ways, but you won’t feel this way forever.
We are all experiencing a nagging internal cry over the way we used to live our lives, before the pandemic. Until we can name and claim those feelings, we may not be able to authentically pick ourselves back up and then encourage each other. It is important to collectively share our personal experiences and listen to one another talk about new routines and new realities.
I have suggested to staffers at my hospital to try the following spiritual exercise at home, which takes about fifteen minutes of quiet time. Begin by lighting a candle. Bring the Light of God into the room with you. No music, no phone. Quiet and candle only.
Imagine your losses as tangible items thrown into a closet at home. Refer to those losses as a Collection. Ask God for help in sorting through your personal Collection. Name each loss you have experienced, no matter what. Say it out loud. Even if you think it sounds silly, do it anyway. You are claiming it by saying it aloud. As you claim each loss, you might cry, laugh out loud, or react in a number of different ways. All normal; keep at it. During this part (naming/claiming) you might actually recall a similar past experience, and this is a good reminder that grief is transient; it will move on when it’s ready!
Embrace and let go. Talking about your Collection can be heavy, but it diminishes its power. It also encourages others to open up. Ask a friend: What’s in your Collection?
Keep your closet empty. When this is behind us, I hope you continue to find daily quiet time with God. Keep praying. Stay hopeful. We are innately born to keep moving.
Catherine Butler is a chaplain resident at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, IL.
June 24, 2020
When so many can’t breathe, chaplains witness to the breath of God
By Anne Windholz
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the breath of God [ruach Elohim] moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:2-3)
The breath of God.
Later, “And the Lord God made a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7).
The breath of God.
For the last several months, we in this hospital and in medical centers around the world have been trying to save the lives of people whispering, gasping, coughing out the words, “I can’t breathe.” We, and so many brothers and sisters from all nations and creeds, races and cultures, have heard those words, or seen them written in the eyes of the dying, and tried – each in our own unique way – to respond. To preserve the breath, to buy the time needed with masks and quarantines and ventilators, so that maybe – just maybe – that living soul could be saved. And that one. And that one.
The breath of God.
Despite our best efforts, we have watched the slow and too-often brutal deaths of living souls who, because of the dark color of their skin, the zip code they live in, and the nature of the jobs they must do to feed their children, are particularly susceptible to the venom of COVID-19. And every time we lose one of them, surely the breath of God is stolen away from all of us.
But as people committed to the saving of lives, what can we make of the deaths that are not the whim of a virus, but carelessly or intentionally perpetrated because someone with power has judged that those “living souls” are not worth preserving? That somehow their breath is less sacred; their light is less important; their lives don’t matter?
Black lives matter. Because every living soul bears the light and breath of God. Because goodness and compassion, healing and mercy, are not something earned. These are inherent rights born of our dignity as humans. And today, in this place, we kneel and give notice: That is my brother, my sister you shoot. That is my mother, my nephew, my spouse and partner and best friend whom you kill. That is my father you suffocate. That is my savior you crucify.
“Jesus uttered a loud cry,” says Mark’s gospel, “and breathed his last.”
The breath of God, moving upon the face of the waters. Moving in our hearts. Moving now, as we remember the fallen, reclaim their dignity, worth, and unique personhood. As we defy the chaos of societal diseases more destructive than COVID. As we reclaim the breath of those killed and don’t just say, but demand, “Let there be light!”
Anne M. Windholz, BCC, is a chaplain specialist at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, IL. This is adapted from a reflection she gave at the “Take a Knee” service of solidarity on June 5, 2020.
June 16, 2020
Now chaplains, and everyone, need to work through disillusionment
By Keith Bitner
I have always thought of myself as a positive person, not naively optimistic, but certainly not a pessimist. How then to explain to myself why I awoke several weeks ago with a dense, foreboding cloud slowly descending over me? As I dressed for work, I could feel its weight pressing on my shoulders. I told myself that maybe it was simply weariness from the intense efforts and heightened anxiety that my healthcare community was experiencing with the onset of a pandemic. Besides, the number of COVID patients were slowly dropping, we were well equipped with ventilators, things were slowly returning to normal.
Wait! Normal? I don’t feel like I’m returning to normal. I feel like the earth has shifted on its axis. I have this feeling that I’ve lost a lot lately, that we have lost a lot and it may not be coming back soon or ever.
And now, a second shock wave is rolling across the landscape, the continents and my own tired heart – the worldwide witness to a horrific murder, an old pandemic long hidden and often dismissed as just a rash on our global, social underbelly. Return to normal? I don’t think so, I hope not. Weariness? I don’t think my foreboding cloud is just weariness. Grief? Yes, but it feels like something else too. Disillusionment? I use the word rather tentatively, having only recently paid attention to it in an online article published by The Collective Psychology Project on the subject of collective grieving. The article includes a graph published by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services describing the emotional impact of catastrophic events.
My attention was drawn immediately to the deep valley of “disillusionment,” plunging lower on the graph than the period of impact. I suddenly felt identified, down there on that descending slope.
Bear with me. Remember I’m an optimist at heart. There is a reason we encourage people to grieve and to mourn. It is the portal through which healing and hope is found. As chaplains, we know that grief, and the actions and rituals of mourning, must come first. Most of us are doing this, and likely we have also been called upon in recent months to facilitate the process with others.
Maybe something like grief work needs to occur with disillusionment as well. Now that the “Heroes Work Here” signs seem to have served their purpose, and we have virtually high-fived one another for having survived the worst of this pandemic (we hope), perhaps we are now entering a new phase.
If there is an upside to the past few months, it might be the abrupt exposure to where we are as a species and what potentially lies ahead. We already knew about our ongoing global problems, but suddenly the hardened soil of “normal life” has been plowed up and overturned by the pandemic and the global unrest. “Disillusionment: Recognition of the limits of the response, feelings of abandonment, increased polarization.” Yes, I feel that.
No doubt some people want to pick up where they left off back in February or early March. Just check out the local shopping malls in the next few weeks. However, like grief, maybe I have to go through my experience of disillusionment, not avoiding it but bearing it for a time. Maybe others in our workplaces are experiencing their own time of disillusionment as well. I know many chaplaincy departments have provided remarkable resources and hands-on support for their healthcare staff to date. What else might we need to attend to as the initial alarm and fear is subsiding and we enter the aftermath? How can we, as chaplains, help work the loosened soil brought on by our current crises? What are our tools to help staff give expression to where they are now?
Other generations have endured catastrophic times and told their stories. This is our time, and the narrative is already unfolding. What can we contribute to help make it explicit and healing? It will not be a one-and-done task. Every day, we will need to move beyond the longing to go back to normal and instead narrate our ascent to new beginnings.
Keith Bitner is a staff chaplain at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in Lancaster, PA.
June 9, 2020
Grief: Our ally in ministry, our companion in loss
By Lisa Irish
My eyes open to the early morning sun blazing across our little lake. “A new day,” my mind registers, “… and what will this day bring?” Then, the thought returns, as it does every morning, “Oh, I remember … all of it.” COVID-19 – the unimaginable losses and the ongoing heartache. Our country’s systemic racism and the decades of denial, broken open. The respite of sleep is over, and my personal (and our collective) experience of loss and grief returns.
This morning ritual reminds me of the grief after a loved one dies. Memories are met with sadness; the empty chair is an icon of absence. Our return to consciousness includes a return to loss and the long, arduous journey of grieving. Morning after morning, as we let the painful truth seep in, we assent to a process of acceptance – but ultimately, a process of transformation.
I was fortunate to offer an online grief program recently for Mercy by the Sea in Madison, CT. “Conscious Grieving: Cultivating Hope in the Land of Loss” sought to offer healing for the many individuals that joined us. But my stories and explanations of grief could not be shared outside of our real-time collective experience of loss and grief from the pandemic and racial injustice.
This was a unique form of ministry, but ministry it was nonetheless. I brought my whole self to the moment, as we chaplains hope to do. I stayed attentive to the lessons of my story while I offered material to support healing. And our guests, some of whom I never really met, jumped in! They carried their broken hearts into a safe space that said, “You can be sad here.” Following our time together, participants spoke of the hope and presence they experienced.
This is all we can ask for in ministry – that we might facilitate, or just be present to, another’s interior movements. The grace of that moment becomes our blessing, our healing, as well. Let us bring our whole hearts to ministry these days, and with conscious self-compassionate choices, let God’s loving arms include us, too.
That is my prayer, now, in the early morning hours. As my eyes squint in the light, may I receive the warmth of God’s love that holds all of it.
Lisa Irish, BCC, offers ministry through spiritual direction, writing, and retreat leadership. Her newest book is Grieving – the Sacred Art: Hope in the Land of Loss.
Shared grief can help people and communities grow
William Blaine-Wallace, When Tears Sing: The Art of Lament in Christian Community. Orbis Press, Maryknoll, NY, 2020.
By Ruth Anne Friesen
This is a book full of movement. The threads of wailing – grief, lament, solidarity, joy and justice – run throughout When Tears Sing as Blaine-Wallace speaks of the theology of lament in the Bible. Lament is seen through the sorrowful and suffering traumatized communities that pursue life beyond oppression. Salvation history remains a work in process, advancing toward more just communities where people are valued for who they are and were created to be.
The author, an Episcopal priest and counselor, listens deeply and respectfully to people’s experiences and gives both space for silence and attention to experiences that need words not yet found. Lament, he says, is relational; a testifier’s story needs both words to convey meaning and a witness as an active listener. Toward the end of the book, where the witnessing process happens in retreat style, I thought of sermons from my CPE experience at Rush Hospital, where the process of narrative reflection was very similar to what is described in this book. Such narratives can open a person’s life to relationship and become a transformative experience for everyone.
Although American society expects its citizens to be self-sufficient and climb the ladder of success, this book suggests that a spirituality of tears brings us to understand more about Jesus’ acceptance of the vulnerable caught in sorrow. The spirituality of tears and loss helps us to slow down, lets the stories and experiences be shared, and allows the caring to emerge. The solidarity becomes real so that persons from very different backgrounds and perspectives may find ways to be in relationship. Out of these lamentational conversations, perhaps everyone could claim their citizenship in an interconnected society of fragile and resilient persons who live life as it really is, and who can give prayerful attention to the wounded self and to the neighbor next door and far away.
Ruth Anne Friesen, BCC, is a chaplain at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago.
June 1, 2020
Ministry to grief, now and soon
Dear NACC members,
Over the past three months, all of our worlds have turned upside down. As someone said very early on, there’s no book about ministry in a pandemic. But you figured it out on the fly, along with every other member of the healthcare team, and you have done remarkable work in continuing to meet the spiritual needs of patients, families, and staff.
But the first adrenaline rush has faded. COVID-19 has not gone away, but it feels like we have shifted from the acute phase to the chronic phase. And we are going to do a shift of emphasis on our NACC Vision blog. We have heard from our members that they like the format of one or two short articles per week, and for the time being we will continue that format. But as the effects of the virus continue to ripple through our society, we have a new question:
How is grief showing up for you? In your personal life and in your interactions at work, what are you seeing and hearing? What are people grieving, and how? What coping techniques are helping?
Please send your thoughts to me, email@example.com. If we receive new and relevant articles about coronavirus, we will certainly use them, but it’s also time to look at the effects of grief.
May 29, 2020
Hospital staff find ways to cope with stress of COVID
By Kathleen Kaskel
I could sense employee tension building by the middle of March as construction crews prepared for the pandemic. The venting systems to provide negative air pressure and the yellow tape lines for the barriers in and out of rooms created shocking ripples that “this is real!”
The ED and ICU were the first areas of emotional overwhelm, particularly as staff witnessed the deaths of young adults with families. Our area has a lot of older residents and nursing homes, which also raised the staff’s level of concern. I began to chart my hospital visits in the ICU in order to convey calm presence to the staff, even if they were unable to stop and talk.
Rather than go home after a day’s work either in knots or bottled up, people have begun to find their own way of maintaining emotional balance. Having just completed an online course in self-care for healthcare providers, I wanted to know specifically how our staff was coping. I began visiting each unit and compiled various creative tools. These options were shared with another site, consolidated, and presented on a System blog page.
Baby monitors or Stratus video can help families who are unable to be with their loved one, a huge cause of moral distress for staff. As part of reverence for the dying person and their families, we make a point of sharing with the family what a person’s last hours or moments included, to help the families process their grief. Chaplains facilitate three-way conversations for clergy members caring for their congregants.
Humorous language can redefine the environment. For instance, some of our staff have named their unit “Camp COVID” with camp counselors and camp directors. Some staffers are also deliberately watching funny animal videos when they have a moment.
Team members are actively watching out for each other. When someone’s personal tension is building, others may supportively approach them and give them a needed break by taking part or all that person’s responsibilities for a needed time away. The HOPE bag has been a well-received pilot program for workers who are emotionally overwhelmed. The bag contains simple small items like candies, a handwritten card, piece of incense, lip gloss, and a pin to wear, if they choose, regarding having a bad day. And we have set up a quiet room on each unit supplied with options for relaxing from the stress (candles, coloring, music, meditation, prayers).
We have also encouraged staffers to debrief with a co-worker, unit leader, or a friend who understands the realities of the medical workplace and HIPAA. In the course of their jobs, we remind them to not rush past the immediate moment and use mindfulness techniques, scripture, or prayer as they feel comfortable. On breaks or at lunch, some staffers find it helpful to deliberately avoid news or mention of COVID-19 and to take a walk outside.
But as the chaplain, I continue to frequently hear from both staff and families how excruciatingly painful it is to “not be there holding my mother’s hand as she is dying,” “not being allowed to be with my loved one,” “why CAN’T the clergy come to be with them?” “not having a viewing or funeral,” “working here and having a coworker die from a freak accident.” Personal family crisis events dovetail onto the already high stress of the job, and some seek out the chaplains to prevent overload.
More than two months in, the emotional tension of COVID seems to have found its balance, although we are prepared for surging should that occur. We may be past the first wave. But after years of facilitating grief programs, I know that the abrupt cessation of rituals used for generations will lead to challenging, complicated grief in the coming months.
Kathleen Kaskel, RN, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton, PA.
May 26, 2020
‘Wounded healer’ label fits better than ‘hero’
By John R. Mastalski
During this COVID-19 pandemic, much adulation has been appropriately showered upon healthcare workers. My own local community in northwest Washington state has posted signs of gratitude around the two caregiver entrances of our medical center. Even our Catholic healthcare system has posted lawn signs in front of all healthcare facilities saying, “HEROES WORK HERE!”
I asked a colleague to take a photo of me standing with one of these signs in front of our medical center – mainly for my elderly parents to see that I am healthy and safe during this crisis.
But over the past few weeks, I have become less comfortable embracing the hero language. So have my colleagues and fellow caregivers; they embrace the gratitude and recognition, but they almost universally shrug off the hero label. As one
nurse remarked, “I never signed up to be a hero. I’m just doing my job!”
I don’t think this is humility. Instead, my coworkers don’t identify with the one-dimensional hero image in our culture. Consciously or not, Americans don’t like heroes to question their professional effectiveness, to struggle with being courageous, to be overwhelmed by the weight of the suffering. We don’t like our heroes to nearly collapse from exhaustion or to cry themselves to sleep at night.
Even worse, we don’t like heroes who struggle spiritually or emotionally.
The ancient archetype of the “wounded healer” is much more applicable to our current milieu. During this COVID-19 pandemic, this is the type of healer that I witness in the hallways of our medical center – caregivers who also struggle with their own loss and grief, who worry about bringing the virus home to their families, who remain courageous despite their fears.
The kind of heroes I work with are healers who don’t try to be superhuman. In providing chaplain support to my fellow caregivers, I have seen them show their vulnerability during this COVID-19 pandemic. Many have cried tears of cumulative grief or shared about feeling scared for their kids at home. One worried about her elderly mom who lives in an assisted living facility. “I miss hugging her, but I get to wave at her through the window that looks out on the garden.” Another described talking over the phone to her dad who is in a facility and doesn’t understand why she can’t visit him. “His memory is starting to go, so he thinks I have abandoned him and don’t want to see him anymore. I have to keep explaining this COVID stuff to him. It’s so frustrating!”
But rarely does the vulnerability of these caregivers prevent them from being the kind of healers they are called to be. They stifle the urges to fear, flee, fight, or freeze. They come to work, day after day, and armor themselves up with PPE and hearts full of gratitude.
During this COVID pandemic, we are all keenly aware of our own vulnerability, with our sense of being “wounded healers.” As such, we are healers, not heroes. We do best what we have been called to do – embody the healing mission of Jesus Christ, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person (including ourselves) in a loving and caring way.
John R. Mastalski, BCC, is manager of spiritual care for the Northwest division of PeaceHealth based at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, WA.
May 21, 2020
Coronavirus also changes prison ministry
The coronavirus outbreak has put unique strains upon jails and prisons, and upon the chaplains who minister in those settings. Vision editor David Lewellen recently spoke by phone with Fr. George Williams, SJ, a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison in California. Fr. Williams also spoke at the NACC conference in 2019 at Mundelein, IL.
Q. What was your job like before COVID-19?
A. I’ve been a prison chaplain for 27 years and at San Quentin for 10 years. It’s mostly a ministry of presence, being available to talk to the men. In that way it’s like a hospital position.
Q. What about staff?
A. Prisons are very tribal. If the prisoners see me being friendly with the corrections officers, they won’t trust me. I have to walk a very fine line. It took me several years to develop trust with the officers, but I’ve done baptisms and weddings for them on the outside. They need pastoral care just as much as the prisoners do.
Q. And what has it been like the last two months?
A. Busier than normal. The Bay Area has done a good job of flattening the curve, and so far there have not been any cases of COVID in the prison. But once it does, it’s going to be like a forest fire. There are so many elderly prisoners who are not a threat to the community and should be released. But even right now, a lot of their family members are getting it, and it falls on me to deliver the news. They’re mostly low-income and people of color, and they’re living on the edge anyway.
Usually the men are free to move about, but now they get only three hours outside their cell every other day. I circulate in the yard, and on the tiers, if people want to talk. They can’t come to me in the chapel anymore.
Q. Is that unusual?
A. It’s very unusual to be in a lockdown situation for this long. People who say that because of quarantine they know what it’s like to be in prison – no, you don’t. If you want to know what it’s like, then lock yourself in your bathroom with a stranger for 24 hours.
Prisoners also aren’t working, so they have no income at all. It wasn’t much, but if they had $30 a month, that was what they used to buy essentials. They’ve also suspended all visits.
Q. Is there any place for telechaplaincy in prisons?
A. It doesn’t work. Prisoners don’t have access to tablets, and they don’t have much access to phones. That’s one of the many areas where the analogy between hospitals and prisons breaks down. But I’m willing to go in, because as a priest, I don’t have immediate family, so I don’t have to worry about infecting my wife or my children.
Q. How are you quarantining?
A. I’m lucky. I’m staying at my community’s retreat house in Marin County. If one person in my community of 30 people in San Francisco tested positive, we’d all be locked down. As it is, it’s a shorter commute, and it’s been like being on retreat for the last eight weeks.
Q. What is the prisoners’ mood about COVID?
A. They’re better informed than I am, because they watch TV. At the beginning they were very anxious and worried. Now there’s less anxiety, but the concern is still there, especially with the guys who are 65 and over. They say, “I’m up for parole in a year, why not let me out now?” And I agree with them. What can I say? They tend to be more concerned about their family members than themselves. It’s probably safer in here than outside – until it gets in, and then watch out.
May 14, 2020
Who else faced this kind of volatility and uncertainty? The apostles.
By Ruth Jandeska
Have you ever heard the term VUCA? It originated with the U.S. Army years ago after the Cold War, to describe the ambiguity of the world. The acronym stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Volatility refers to fluctuations and turbulence, uncertainty refers to future events that cannot be foreseen, complexity refers to the interconnection of the many variables, and ambiguity refers to lack of clarity. While these terms are related, they do represent different areas of an environment.
The whole world is in a VUCA state now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see VUCA in the supply of PPE and everything related to manufacturing, educational services, restaurant industries and food production, retail services, transportation, recreation, and so much more. Even the environment is in a positive VUCA state as carbon emissions plummet.
Over the past few weeks, we have heard over and over that these are unprecedented times, that life will never be the same, and that we will never return to “normal,” whatever that normal used to be. But the reality is, we are always in a VUCA state. Change is constantly present, and complete stability is an illusion. Yet nimble leaders are able to work with this challenge, to see VUCA not as an enemy, but rather the conditions in which their institutions can still thrive, through collaboration and innovation. By repurposing the acronym to Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility, they become agents of positive change and create a future amid chaos.
How can each of us begin to take such an approach in this pandemic? In the post-Easter season, it is worth remembering the apostles’ lives after Jesus’ death. Their world was a VUCA world. Their Messiah came, taught, healed, and promised them a new life. But then he was gone. What were their lives supposed to look like from now on? Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous indeed was their world. They mourned and grieved his death. They feared for their own lives. Some were filled with anger, others filled with doubts.
Probably still confused, they eventually came back together and prayed. They had seen their risen Lord, and he had reminded them about God’s promise. Their sense of meaning and purpose had been galvanized when he explained the scriptures to them on the road to Emmaus. They began to adapt. They prayed and they waited.
What are you holding on to during these challenging times?
What practices or rituals are helping you to remain centered and whole amid the chaos? What is helping you rekindle your sense of mission and purpose in life?
Ruth Jandeska, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Providence Health in Columbia, SC. This reflection is adapted from an email to employees.
May 11, 2020
Remote pastoral care: From St. Paul to telechaplaincy
By John Gillman
Suddenly, telechaplaincy is becoming the new normal. Healthcare groups across the country are scrambling to make pastoral care available virtually during a time when face-to-face interaction is risky for both chaplains and patients.
But even in the first century, Paul the Apostle faced the challenges of helping his fledgling congregations when he was not on the scene physically. He, of course, used letters to meet urgent pastoral care needs. Through his epistles he comforted those who were mourning the death of loved ones (1 Thess 4:13-18), reassured those who were distressed about their community members (Phil 2:25-30), and tried to resolve problems such as divisions among them, immoral behavior, abuses regarding the Eucharist, and doubts about the resurrection (1 Cor 1:10-17; 5:1-5; 11:17-34; 15:1-58).
Had mobile phones, laptops, and iPads been available in his day, Paul would undoubtedly have spent hours each day sending texts, making calls, and connecting visually with Facetime, Skype, and Zoom. If so, he would have appreciated both the benefits and the limitations of these resources in making effective pastoral connections. Paul, too, had to deal with isolation, although not of his own choosing; he was imprisoned more than once. Nonetheless, he was able to minister during his confinement by sending letters.
Today, spiritual care departments have used creative ways to connect remotely with patients and staff. For example, in a midsize hospital in the Rocky Mountain region, CPE resident Linnea was available in the interfaith chapel for any staff to drop in. While there, she received a text message from a staff member who had happened to notice her name badge a few days earlier. Linnea was pleasantly surprised that a text conversation ended up being quite substantive in bringing the Divine into the recent trauma the community experienced.
I’m grateful to her for permission to share this (details have been altered for anonymity). Here is a brief edited segment of the extended dialogue (S = Staff; C = Chaplain):
S: Well it’s just me and my seven-year-old daughter. We don’t trust the earth [reference to recent earthquake]. But it made me rethink my priorities and where I stand with my faith.
C: Oh my. How is she doing? How did your family respond to the earthquake?
S: My family was just freaked out because they couldn’t get hold of me because I was at work for so many days in a row. But they are okay now. … I’ve been kind of wondering about my faith for some time.
C: May I ask what you have been wrestling with?
S: When someone from my church asked me what I believe, I wasn’t able to answer the question clearly. I feel confused at this point. But I am searching and just want to know who my God is.
C: That can be a very disorienting and vulnerable place to be. Who has your God been for you in the past?
S: God was the father and I think he still is, but I wonder more about who Jesus is and his role.
C: Sounds like your spiritual journey is taking you to unknown spaces that are entirely new to you. I truly believe God is a loving God who comes alongside us on our journey. Where do you find peace?
S: Lately, in reading the Bible or listening to some good music.
C: I too have found peace and comfort in reading daily devotionals with Bible verses. Have you heard the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth”?
S: Oh I’ll have to look into the app. I have not heard that song. I’ll look at it when I go for lunch. Thanks a lot.
C: This is the Holy Scripture app I have been using too. You might like it. [App is included.] I hope you have a blessed afternoon. Feel free to message me anytime. I am on iMobile and I will get back to you when I am back on.
S: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Often a remote pastoral care encounter will be brief, but in this case, the text messaging dialogue was extensive. As is the case throughout the country, the chaplains and CPE students at this hospital are engaged in remote ministry. One student sends a brief message to each staff member on the units he is covering to offer support, and often receives a brief reply of appreciation. Another shared how she provided comfort and encouragement to a patient just before surgery. In the spirit of St. Paul, chaplains are finding many creative ways to connect remotely with patients and staff to provide significant pastoral care.
John Gillman, Ph.D., is a certified educator based in San Diego and author of the recently published resource What Does the Bible Say About Life and Death?
May 7, 2020
Moment of grace keeps chaplain going in pandemic
By Jim Willsey
It’s Tuesday afternoon. Tomorrow I’ll be furloughed for the day, as the hospital has cancelled elective procedures to prepare for the COVID-19 surge predicted within the next two weeks. Even so, we are at over 85% capacity due to the already large number of corona cases. Many of our staff are furloughed completely, working from home, or trying to file for unemployment benefits.
My chaplain schedule is more intentional now. I see immunocompromised patients first, for whom an infection would be almost certainly fatal. Next, patients who are PUIs. I had to learn that term, an acronym for Person Under Investigation for being COVID-positive. Four weeks ago, that test result took three, four or more days to come back. Thank God the results are faster now.
I take off my jacket and leave it in the office. I don my N-95 respirator and grab my face shield and prepare for visiting. I’ve already prayed for patients in the ICU, intubated and sedated, and in some cases called their families to let them know of the compassionate care they’re receiving, since we’ve restricted all visitation — except for one family member for those imminently dying.
Ending my day are the five COVID patients who want a visit or whose families have requested one. Next to last is an elderly woman with a history of dementia. Yesterday she opened her eyes but really wasn’t able to respond. Today her nurse reports she is more alert. I sanitize my hands, put on my gown, don the gloves, and also the mask and shield that I reuse because they are in short supply. I knock on the door and enter, calling her name as I do so.
I reintroduce myself, and she responds and tries to talk, but I can’t understand much of what she says because of the Bi-pap mask on her face. I say that her daughters send their love. She brightens, and I ask if she would like to pray. She nods. Given her condition, I decide to keep it simple and pray the Our Father and Hail Mary. And she mouths many of the words along with me. At least I see her lips moving. I offer a blessing, remove my gloves, and say goodbye.
On to my last patient. He speaks Spanish. I wish I spoke it better. We visit, and I end with a prayer and leave. Done for the day. The elderly woman’s nurse and aide are just leaving her room. She stops me and says, “When we were in there, ‘Mary’ told me she had just prayed, and she was smiling.”
I’ve been a chaplain over thirty years. But it’s times like this when God graces me to know that I’ve made a difference that will get me back for Thursday’s rounds.
Jim Willsey is director of spiritual care at Roger Williams Medical Center in Providence, RI.
May 4, 2020
Grief kits help assure families that loved ones in hospital are not alone
By Nick Stewart
During COVID-19, hospital policies and the way care is delivered have drastically changed. Many once-reliable resources of spiritual care have been stripped away. Gone are the days of the held hand, gentle consolation of a hug, and even a whole face without a mask. Physical separation of loved ones during an illness removes an important healing resource.
These realities gave birth to the idea of grief kits, so that our spiritual care department could provide meaningful ways for patients and their loved ones to connect and useful resources for the team members caring for them, while we as chaplains offered our support.
On each unit, we have placed a small plastic tote that includes a battery-powered pillar candle for the clinical unit; a door sign; a sign for the nursing staff; Compassionate Presence certificates; and rose quartz hearts. The candle is lit at the nurses’ station during a death or when a patient is actively dying. The Compassionate Presence certificate is signed by members of the treatment team to tell the patient’s loved ones about the empathetic and intentional care provided by the team. The rose quartz heart, a symbol of unconditional love, fits in the palm of a hand and is given to each patient to remember the bond between them and their loved ones. All of these items intend to acknowledge that despite visitor restrictions, patients still do not die alone.
After a death, the chaplain retrieves the signed Compassionate Presence certificate and rose quartz heart. The chaplain then mails a packet to the loved ones with a letter explaining the contents, acknowledging the presence and care provided to the patient, and the importance of that patient and their life. The packet also contains a replica of the sign placed outside of the patient’s room, the explanation of the rose quartz heart, a remembrance poem keepsake, and bereavement resources.
The chaplain calls to confirm a mailing address prior to sending. This serves as an opportunity to provide spiritual care to loved ones who might not have been present in the hospital, assuring that a connection is still made, care is still provided, and the family still has a lasting memory of their loved one in the final moments of life.
Nick Stewart, BCC, is chaplain for Pediatrics and Women’s Services at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, NC.
April 30, 2020
Letting go of the daffodils
By Anne Millington
Last Saturday morning I decided to make a retreat to one of my favorite spots: a pond circled by a lovely wooded trail, with a small group of log cabins. The cabins are very simple, and in recent times I have taken to renting one for days of retreat.
The burdens of the pandemic had certainly left me longing for a day to myself, my spirit heavy from the mounting challenges and griefs borne by hospital patients, families and staff. What sadness I had witnessed and shared. What sadness I had experienced in my own family and community. What fear we all had for our lives. Of course, the cabins are now closed to visitors, but on this morning, I had decided to journey to the pond. “It’s better than nothing,” I told myself. I find myself saying that a lot these days.
As I walked around the pond, I suddenly glimpsed a big planting of daffodils joyously, even outrageously in bloom. How gorgeous they were! What an antidote to the doom and gloom in my soul! Blooming in silence way off the path to the closed campsite, few could see them, few could enjoy them. I quickly picked a bouquet. How lovely they would look on my dining table! Pandemic or not, it was spring after all! What joy and hope in life and newness these flowers would bring! However, a strong cold breeze kept blowing them up against my jacket, bruising their stems and fraying their blossoms. I did my best to shield them and protect them. I had to believe that the glory of these daffodils could somehow prevail over the darkness in my heart.
As I approached my favorite cabin, I smiled as I saw it was just the same as always. I knew I could not actually enter it, but I basked in its comforting presence as I shifted from one foot to another in order to stay warm in the brisk early spring air. And then I looked down at my daffodils. Sadly, the wind had ravaged them. The gorgeous flowers were now drooping, bruised and tousled beyond repair.
I felt a hot surge of failure. I knew I couldn’t control the pandemic in all its terrors and griefs. I knew I couldn’t warm up in my cabin. But the flowers? I couldn’t even save them? Why had I bothered to pick them? They had given their lives in vain! My own powerlessness and ineptitude overwhelmed me. Shivering a final cabin-side shiver, I laid my daffodils down on the stairs, like putting flowers on a gravestone.
Walking back toward the parking lot, I noticed the cold breeze playing across the surface of the pond, bringing the water alive with ripples of morning light. Indeed, the whole pond seemed to glimmer and shine, almost like liquid silver. As I gazed through my own liquid silver tears at this sight that somehow shimmered with the Divine, I took a deep breath and let go, once again, of those daffodils — and with them, my strivings to control the future, my expectations for myself and for others, my assumptions about life itself.
In that moment I knew that such a God of grace and beauty is a God who will somehow sustain peace and love through all the storms of the coronavirus pandemic. I thanked God that I still had eyes that could perceive God’s beauty. I thanked God that my little cabin was still there. Most of all, though, I thanked God for the daffodils that had brought me a bit of salvation.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.
April 27, 2020
Ministry by phone offers connection to nursing home residents
For weeks now, the residents at the nursing home where I have worked for the past six years have been on lockdown. All residents must stay in their rooms, and no one is allowed to come in except essential medical and support staff. The danger of an outbreak of the coronavirus in a contained community of high-risk individuals is just too great. In addition, our daily Mass has been discontinued, and so has distribution of Holy Communion to residents. If I visit a resident, I can only stand in the doorway and yell a word of encouragement, blessing, or short prayer.
Being in my late 60s myself, and having high-risk family members at home, I had to find another way. My prayers and broadcasts of Spiritual Communion over our closed-circuit television system are appreciated, but our 100-plus residents need more.
That is why, for the past month, I have been calling every resident on the phone at least once per week, usually about 20-25 calls per day. My calls are usually done after lunch from about 1-3 p.m., which seems to be a time when residents are available. I listen to them talk about their frustrations, fears, loneliness, and complaints, as well as the acceptance and peace they have found in their souls.
In fact, some of our residents seem to prefer talking to me over the phone and look forward to my regular calls. Perhaps this is because it gives them a sense of power to ramble on or cut it short. Last week, for instance, I spoke at length with a resident who is really hurting from shingles. She is so uncomfortable, but she felt better being able to talk about her illness and her feelings.
Most of my conversations are short and to the point, but each one ends with a prayer and a sincere blessing of gratitude from both resident and chaplain. We are all in this together, and only our faith in God will see us through.
Rick Nash is a chaplain at St. Benedict Nursing and Rehabilitation in Niles, IL.
April 23, 2020
Fear and faith in response to the coronavirus
By Nicholas Perkins
On a recent weekend, I lost three patients to the coronavirus. I said prayers for them, then called their families to express condolences and provided information on funeral home protocols. They wanted to know why this happened and why fear grips the world.
I had a moment of clarity after those sad phone calls: This pandemic invites me to give my energy to two invisible, equally powerful forces. One is fear and the other is faith. The choice that I make to focus on either can affect the quality of my day and my relationships. It can also determine how I adjust and adapt to the ever-changing dimensions of this crisis.
An example of this played out weeks ago in a store when I and many other shoppers observed an employee unload a pallet of Lysol disinfectant spray. I got two cans while the man beside me asked the woman with six if she would give one to him. The woman ignored him and walked away.
That experience made me think about effective stewardship. Will something I want on Amazon take up important space on a truck that may have to deliver essential, life-saving goods? The important thing during any crisis isn’t to find the perfect solution, but to discover the mission-essential things that have to be done.
What mission-essential things can I do to stay centered as I offer hope to others? I must first acknowledge some of the difficult realities in this situation: Social distancing is painful for people who want to be together. Isolation for those who are alone and lack a network is real. Anxiety can cause a person to rely on inappropriate coping mechanisms. Mounting anger over lost wages or unemployment is a valid concern.
A while ago, a nurse told me, “It seems the only thing I do all day is push pills. It feels so futile right now.” I felt powerless in her distress — but later I learned that she appreciated how I listened without commentary. Although this illness has physical consequences, its spiritual component has me explore the issues in my life that I minimize or ignore, while an appreciation for silence in the slowdown invites me to set deliberate intentions. I enjoy nature, meditate, explore my values, and define what inspires me.
Since creativity can be an effective resource for grief and trauma, I have turned washing my hands at work into a ritual. I say the Our Father and identify the attitudes and behaviors of which I need to be cleansed, e.g. arrogance, resentment, people-pleasing, or selfishness. As soap and water purify my hands, I imagine the love of Christ purifying my heart in the font of his limitless mercy.
Some people have asked me how this still-evolving tragedy compares to the events of September 11, 2001. They are very different, but an important common denominator is resilience and fortitude. A person who jumps from one speedboat to another commits an act of daring, not of fortitude. Had the person been trying to rescue the passengers of the second speedboat, we could speak of fortitude, but not without a pursuit of the good. The principle act of fortitude is to endure, and that is a significant similarity between the 9-11 attacks and this pandemic.
I’ve stopped watching the news because it does nothing for my emotional sobriety. Instead, I search for moments of fortitude: Nurses and physicians care for patients with COVID-19, environmental service workers clean rooms, one person gives another a can of Lysol. And the belief that fortitude and sacrifice work together for the common good flattens the curve.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.
April 20, 2020
COVID recovery: A member’s story
NACC member Bridget Deegan-Krause was diagnosed with a presumptive mild case of COVID-19 in March. This account of her recovery is adapted from a recent Facebook post.
I am doing well, my friends. I am so grateful for the kindness of you who reached out in solidarity. In the spirit of friendship, I will share my experience of the aftermath of my telemed-diagnosed COVID-19.
Emergence from isolation, although a very welcome thing, has proven a bit awkward. The lights seem a little too bright, and the house a bit too noisy. I have tight shoulders and shaky legs. I’m still tired and carry some residual irritability (a curious symptom I now am hearing about). I have needed to pace myself and resist long conversations, even finding my way back to my quiet room when I need a break. My loved ones remain a bit fearful of me and the infection I have carried. My son recoiled when I reached out to touch the top of his head. Even the embraces with my husband have felt strange, as we both are aware of the contagion that has come between us.
I recognize the need for patience today. My accomplishments remain simple. A shower. A gentle walk. A text to a friend with a picture of the daffodils in the yard. And a pause for gratitude: For the robins by day, and owls by night. For the mercy of the tea kettle, the clean sheets, the loving messages from friends. And oddly, for the strange gift of isolation, for time and space without which I could not heal.
If you are beginning to emerge from the isolation of COVID-19, please be patient and move slowly. It takes time to get our strength back. Some will expect you to jump back into business as usual, but you may need to claim time to slowly roll back into your life. Like many of you, I am restless with a desire to be helpful, to figure out where my limited energy should go. I have tried to be choosy about what I let creep into my schedule.
But one thing that has been important for me: I have tried reaching out in small ways to those who carry unseen burdens. In this I have discovered that some households are under tremendous strain. Dysfunction is amped up. Some needs are compounded by all that this illness demands of us. We need to be vigilant and take care of each other.
I share my experience with you in hope that it might shed some light on a fearsome thing. Healing comes, and death need not be the end of the story. My milder version of this sickness, thankfully, is the norm. My isolation has come to an end, but my family’s quarantine continues. Re-integration among even the best of friends and neighbors will be complex and awkward. Surely patience, time and forbearance will help heal and protect us from the effects of this illness that lingers in and among us.
April 17, 2020
In the midst of pandemic, the normal remains
By Anne Windholz
Last week at work I spent time investigating coronavirus resources and support. I checked chaplaincy organization websites, listened to a conversation about pandemic-complicated grief, identified Schwartz Center aids, and read about Passover in time of pandemic.
For me and most people I know, everything in work life, personal life, and ministry is now “re-visioned” through the ubiquitous image of the corona virus itself — a pock-marked sphere with mean red “crowns” sticking out all over. Rather like the inhabitants of the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, who had green glasses locked onto their heads, we in healthcare find ourselves wearing spectacles of pandemic that color our sense of reality. People in the Emerald City began to believe that, indeed, the city around them was made of emeralds. That was the wizard’s great trick. Everything green, all the time. We, meanwhile, see corona-red. Our professional discourse is positively dyed by it.
But the “ordinary” stuff is still happening for staff and patients. Vision’s last issue was dedicated to organ donation. What happens in time of pandemic if a loved one is waiting for a liver, or you are trying to decide whether to donate a kidney? The fear, the hesitation, is simply amplified. The common health issues and accompanying challenges remain. And that is true whether we are talking about an organ donation, a mental health crisis, losing a baby, or dealing with pediatric parents. In a strange new world, this is ground we know. And it’s not all red. We are not just pandemic chaplains.
I point this out in part because I dealt with an ICU death recently — sudden embolism, unexpected, lots of grief — and afterwards the nurse and I were talking it through. As we finished up, I realized — I’d completely forgotten, for an hour and a half, about the coronavirus. That forgetting, that getting lost in the “normal day” of work, even “normal grief” (if there is such a thing) felt good. At lunch, other interdisciplinary staff described similar instances. “I walked out to get a cup of coffee,” said one manager with embarrassment, “and it felt just like any other Wednesday. Then I remembered the virus.”
In a situation where people are dying and many, many others are vulnerable, no one, least of all healthcare workers, can afford to ignore COVID-19. But neither can we let it subsume the usual focus of our work or swallow up our joy in the ordinary. Our world is neither green nor red, but remains beautifully multicolored — even yet.
In the 1970s, my mom had a small poster on her bedroom wall: “Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.” I think that the grace of the normal, too, where we can find it, will be an important part of our work lives in the months to come.
Anne M. Windholz, BCC, is spiritual care leader/staff chaplain at Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
April 15, 2020
Stretching ourselves includes adapting to online funerals
By Maggie Finley
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lent we just finished will be remembered for years to come as an ironically appropriate frame for this unprecedented event.
Among the dizzying array of online prayer and worship communities I have seen, one that stood out was from my faith community’s outreach minister, Kim Cockcroft. Kim reflected on the ancient word Lent and its meaning “to lengthen.” She spoke of the lengthening of days literally and figuratively, and how of necessity we’re forced to reorder our lives inside and out. The response to the virus demands we change the way we use time, whether at home or on the front lines. And this is not only a time of lengthening but also a time of stretching. The pandemic is forcing us to stretch beyond the boundaries of what used to be normal toward a renewed understanding of our interdependence.
A significant stretch at my house began with my mother-in-law’s death on March 9, not due to but during the outbreak. At 96 years of age and after nearly six months on hospice care, she died peacefully in her sleep. My husband and I didn’t relish the thought of air travel from our home in Washington state, the first epicenter of coronavirus in the United States, to St. Louis, where his mother and other family members lived. My husband did make our flight plans, but ultimately, the family agreed to postpone the funeral, to our relief.
A couple days later, the immediate family opted for a farewell viewing, since the body was to be cremated. My husband’s youngest sister suggested we participate virtually and asked if I’d do the commendation. My husband said this felt “weird.” Then I had the kind of talk with him that reminded me of the delicately painful (precious) conversations I had with newly grieving parents in the NICU. I asked what he meant by “weird,” but he said little, while his body clearly communicated he wanted to shake it off. I let him know I’d honor whatever he wanted to do, but that I believed, as hard and strange as it might seem now, that at some point in the future, he’d probably be glad he’d seen his mother and had an opportunity, however imperfect, to say goodbye.
The family went ahead with the plan, and my doing the commendation, even from a distance, seemed to be of some consolation. My husband (thankfully) was able to shed some tears, and after leaving the video meeting we quietly processed together. He conceded that much of his reluctance was actually more about the fear of seeing his mother’s appearance in death. But her face was serene, and the clothing for her “shroud” suited her style. I think had he not been able to see that, even on a computer screen, he would have always wondered about it.
As he tells others the story of his experience, even though he still says it was “weird,” I also hear him say we’re living in novel times and we may be challenged to find new ways to respond to life’s situations. Having the technological option to be connected to his mother’s death was better than nothing. And personally, I look forward to a time (as I’m sure he does) when we’re all assembled, able to touch one another physically and emotionally to express our grief in community – as family.
Maggie Finley, BCC, is a retired chaplain from Providence Hospice of Seattle.
April 13, 2020
Contemplating death on Easter Monday in the time of COVID
By John Gillman
The Gospel reading for this Easter Monday tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary quickly departed from the empty tomb “fearful yet overjoyed” even though the angel had just instructed them, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:8-15). But how easily the angel’s joyful message, “He has been raised,” could be drowned out by the daily upward spike in deaths from COVID-19.
If Death can ever claim to be “mighty and dreadful”—contrary to John Donne’s claim in his famous poem “Death Be Not Proud”— it would be now. Stronger than presidents and other rulers, death has thwarted the mighty, at least during the past few frightful months. Death might say, “Just look at the numbers already in my grasp, I am the proudest of them all!”
In the midst of Passover and with haunting images of empty churches during Holy Week and Easter, we live more vividly than ever with experiences of suffering unto death, death itself, and divine rescue. The Holy One rescued the Hebrews from certain death by bringing them up out of the land of Egypt. Yet, as many have noted, the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, particularly the killing of the firstborn, raise perplexing questions of theodicy about why some live and others die. While hanging on the cross, Jesus utters a seemingly implacable plea: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; see Psalm 22:1). Nearly overcome by the jaws of death encroaching upon him, Jesus appears to be on the precipice of despair. Yet God raised him up on the third day. Although synagogues and churches may be empty this week, the power of God is not diminished.
For Christians the ultimate victory over death has been gained through the Christ event: his death and resurrection. Paul can joyfully acclaim: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” The frightened disciples, fearful for their own safety, no longer had to sequester themselves. Everything changed when the Risen Lord appeared to them, empowering them to announce the Good News.
Currently, I am serving as a contract certified educator at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Living in San Diego, I began the unit commuting there weekly. However, after the coronavirus reared its head, I and co-teacher Rev. Cathy Schreiber have been connecting with the six students through Zoom. On the front lines with other team members — although more often in doorways than at the bedside — the CPE students have committed themselves more fully than ever to provide spiritual care during this time of crisis
These past several weeks, the inevitability of death leapt a few steps closer to each student, and to me. It was not so much if but when anyone might test positive. For so many, including healthcare workers, grocery employees, law enforcement officers, and delivery folks, the reality of death became much less hidden. The veil had been pulled back.
This crisis heightens St. Benedict’s reminder to keep death daily before our eyes (Rule of Benedict 4,47) and St. Francis’ invitation to embrace death when it comes, even praising God “through our Sister Death” (Canticle of the Sun). More than just the backdrop of life, death has now taken center stage. Contemplating our own death may be the most profound form of meditation.
Perhaps more now than any other time in our lives, the specter of death casts a long shadow upon who we are and what we do. But our faith is firmly grounded in the infinitely greater power of the Holy One. During this time of Passover and Easter, surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), we remain people of hope in the Living God who calls us, even while isolated, into greater solidarity with one another, especially those afflicted with COVID-19. The compassion we bring, the light we share, the hope we manifest, all join together as our faithful witness to all those we serve.
May the wellspring of our hearts reflect the profound joy of the women at the tomb. Having witnessed the horror of Jesus’ death — the painful memory still fresh in their inmost being —they are now overjoyed. In the midst of our anxiety, may we live in the belief that ultimately Life is victorious over Death. In this there is much to be joyful about.
John Gillman, Ph.D., is a certified educator based in San Diego and author of the recently published resource What Does the Bible Say About Life and Death? (New City Press, 2020), from which some reflections above are taken.
April 9, 2020
COVID-19 and Catholic social teaching: Choose life
By Dan Lunney
As some commentators seek to ease physical distancing and re-open the economy, despite the spread of COVID-19, it is essential to reaffirm a theological anthropology flowing from Catholic social teaching.
The primary tenet of Catholic social teaching is that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, thus we all have inherent dignity. The concept of personhood does not depend on productivity or other arbitrary measures. A human being is imbued with dignity because we are created in God’s image and likeness. The elderly and infirm do not cease to have inherent dignity because of their age or infirmity. Calls to sacrifice some of our elderly sisters and brothers to save the economy are totally inconsistent with Scripture and Catholic social teaching.
Throughout Scripture, societies are judged on how they treat the most vulnerable (the widows and orphans in the Hebrew Scriptures and Matthew 25 in the New Testament). But today, proponents of the prosperity gospel have inverted the teaching of Jesus to parallel the predominant values of Western culture, raising productivity, wealth, strength, power, and the individual to utmost importance. From that perspective, the elderly are expendable because they do not contribute to society in a way that is deemed to have worth. Everything is commodified and viewed as transaction rather than relationship.
However, an inclusive concept of personhood reminds us that no one is expendable and affirms the sanctity of life. This is not a call to vitalism, an extreme position that everything possible needs to be implemented to sustain life. Instead, this is a call to affirm the dignity of each human person in our approach to COVID-19. The economy must not be the sole criterion upon which decisions are made. Policy decisions which view certain people as expendable must be rejected outright.
The shortage of medical equipment such as respirators means that painful triage decisions may have to be made. Those decisions are outside the scope of this essay. But older people disproportionately die from COVID-19, especially if they have other underlying health conditions. That includes the entire population with whom I minister as the chaplain in a long-term care facility. Restricting visitors, cancelling group activities, and restricting staff with symptoms or who may have been exposed, are essential to keep COVID-19 from entering the community. Especially for families and residents, these sacrifices are difficult. Because of recent travel, I am prevented from going to work for 14 days as a precaution, but I accept the restriction to protect our residents.
And these restrictions are only effective in conjunction with personal, citywide, statewide, nationwide and worldwide containment policies and initiatives. The spread of COVID-19 demonstrates how interconnected we are and how individual practices in conjunction with others can lead to better outcomes for all. In Catholic social teaching, this working together is called solidarity. We who abide by stay-at-home orders and physical distancing are in solidarity with those who are working on the frontlines in healthcare, essential services, and first responders.
Although the rates of death are less for younger people, physical distancing and self-quarantine will reduce the possibility of transmission. Of course these practices involve sacrifice and hurt the economy — but the economy ought not to be the primary benchmark of a society. How we care for one another, especially the least among us, should be the moral compass used to drive policy.
Today we face the challenge posed in Deuteronomy 30:15, “See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil.” This passage includes an admonition to refrain from bowing down to other gods. That includes not making the economy into a god that we serve. Choosing life and good does not mean that there will be no suffering or death. It does mean that our decisions will be consistent with scripture and Catholic social teaching. Let us put more value on the worth of human beings than on the stock market. Let us make decisions which support our essential workers and those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Let us make decisions which affirm the dignity of the human person and our responsibilities to one another. Let us embrace a concept of personhood which is inclusive rather than one that excludes certain members of the human family. Let us make decisions which affirm life and good.
Dan Lunney, BCC, is the director of pastoral care and mission integration at St. Joseph Village of Chicago sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. This essay first appeared in slightly different form at academia.edu.
April 6, 2020
“At this time, numbness is nature’s gift to us”
By Anne Millington
I grew up in Alaska, and as a girl I often needed to journey out into the deep Arctic cold. The air would hit my face first, sticking my eyelashes together and burning my cheeks. Then the cold would bite at my fingers in my gloves. And then, inevitably, it would settle into my feet. Despite my insulated boots. Despite my two pairs of wool socks.
As my freezing feet began to throb with pain, I would continue to walk. To stop would mean giving into the dangerous cold; to keep going would ensure making it to shelter. Slowly, numbness would set into my feet, offering respite from the pain. I had known the numbness would come, and I welcomed it. My numb feet could still sense the pressure of the road beneath me, so I would not fall. Indeed, my feet were somehow energized by the numbness. I felt confident they could get me to safety.
At this point, our coronavirus journey has numbed us, every bit as much as the arctic air once numbed my feet. The full reality of what we are facing has descended, and we are responding as we must. At this time, numbness is nature’s gift to us. When we are numb, we are newly equipped to move forward in the face of traumatic circumstances. We can accomplish the heroic. We can ration resources, we can deploy services, we can save lives. As chaplains, we can support others by understanding and respecting the numbness in others, even in ourselves. We can support others as we would support anyone numbed by trauma, much as we would during a Code Blue. We can be in the moment with people. We can narrate the moment for people. We can name the moment for people. We can offer them support and help for immediate needs, we can offer prayer. We can care for ourselves in our own numbness around trauma.
To question or to delve much into our experiences could be dangerous at this time, as reality could be too much to bear. Our numbness is currently protecting us, and to rise to the demands of this moment we need this protection. The time for great spiritual and existential unpacking will come later, once we have survived this time.
Surviving this pandemic will hurt. Just like my numb feet hurt as they warmed and thawed after they delivered me safely in from the Arctic cold. When our numbness thaws, the deep extent of our repressed injury and horror will surface. We will take stock of how our lives have been damaged; we will grieve loved ones we have lost. Great spiritual needs will arise at this time as people will need to talk, to process and to make meaning from this time. Although life will never be the same after we have survived, as chaplains we will be called to support others as we navigate our future landscape.
Anne Millington, BCC, is a chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Milton, MA.
April 1, 2020
COVID diagnosis: A member’s story
NACC member Bridget Deegan-Krause is currently recovering from a presumptive mild case of Covid-19. This account of her diagnosis and treatment is adapted from a Facebook post last week.
My dear friends. First off, I feel fairly confident that this illness is mostly behind me. Today I have no fever. I’m fatigued and I get winded easily. But I feel well enough to write.
The Covid-19 numbers in the Detroit area, where I live, are staggering. We are beginning to see some serious cases. But many will be mild to moderate. In solidarity, I share my likely-but-untested-mild-case story and a description of an urgent care visit, to dispel a little fear and to help you think ahead about your own resources should you get sick.
At noon on Wednesday, March 18, a fever, headache and malaise came on pretty suddenly. I isolated myself in my bedroom. For about three days, I engaged in some screen time, sipped tea, and enjoyed food delivered by my family. I experienced intermittent fever, fatigue, and a dull headache, with only a slight cough. But on days 5 and 6 my temperature began to be persistent – only between 99 and 100, but enough to feel unwell. I felt more tired and more bothered by the fullness in my chest and some shortness of breath and a slight dry cough. I got serious about staying in bed and cancelled all meetings, as I was getting winded talking.
After being sick for a week, I called my primary care doctor’s office and got a telemedicine appointment for the morning of day 8, Wednesday, March 25. The office has set up an easy web-based consult system which allowed me to talk through my symptoms. Given my history of minor asthma and bronchitis, my doctor wanted to have my oxygen level checked and to have someone listen to my lungs – pneumonia remains the concern with covid. She noted that there has been a pattern with day 8 sometimes seeing a more serious turn in symptoms. She also noted that my milder symptoms would not warrant a rationed test, reserved for the higher-risk patients, caregivers, and those showing more significant symptoms.
At her direction, I called a nearby urgent care clinic and set an appointment for the following morning. (Also, I could have set it up and registered online, even from the parking lot.) Most insurance plans cover urgent care. For those who have limited insurance or are self-pay, I was told that the rates are $95 for a visit. If a lung x-ray is needed, it is $50.
I arrived at 8, texted that I was there, and was instructed to wait in my cozy car. They called me on my mobile and had me answer initial assessment questions from my car. Then I was admitted through a locked door, given a mask, and kindly directed to my exam room. They held all doors so I touched nothing. Once in my room, they instructed me to wash my hands. Vitals were done, and then a very informative PA assessed me and answered all my questions. I did not have a temperature and had no signs of pneumonia – just a little asthma wheeze. So she sent me home with a sheet of instructions, directing me to rest and self-monitor my temperature.
So here I rest. If I remain fever-free for 72 hours, I am free to reintegrate with my family. I now need to watch to see if they get sick. We will stay clear of our seniors and love them from afar. We are set for groceries and will remain quarantined as a household for now. I remain pretty tired. But assuming all is well, I will heal soon and be ready to face with you all that lies ahead of us.
Blessings, peace and all good,
Welcome to a new Vision for new times
Dear NACC members,
I don’t think any of us have ever been through a month like this, and there is no end in sight. Thank you all for the vital work you are doing.
But the coronavirus is moving much faster than our publication cycle. This is rapidly becoming the biggest story, and the biggest crisis, of most of our lifetimes, and it directly affects you and the people you minister to.
So beginning today, we are moving Vision to this blog format. We are soliciting articles from you about all Covid-19-related topics, and we will share them as quickly as possible after receiving them. If you have experiences to share about telechaplaincy, moral distress, ministry to families, personal protective equipment, please send a note to me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Again, thanks and blessings for your ministry, and let’s share our information.
NACC honors three outstanding contributors
Three people with very different backgrounds were honored over the weekend with the NACC’s annual awards at the conference at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.
Harry Dudley received the Outstanding Colleague Award for his years of collaboration with the NACC as the USCCB’s assistant director of the Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service. He has been heavily involved with NACC’s Raskob Foundation grant that has become Partners in Pastoral Care. Mary T. O’Neill praised “his consistent call for competency, education and oversight of the ministry, by both volunteers and paid staff.”
“You were bridge builders in a culture more comfortable with building walls,” Dudley said in his speech of thanks. “You are my heroes. You are the ones who run into the fire when others are running away. You are blessed. You all do this in the name of the Lord and the name of this church. So bless you all and thank you for allowing me to walk with you.”
Sr. Emily DeMuth, CSC, received the association’s Distinguished Service Award. In her 70 years as as sister and 40 years as a certified chaplain, “she’s got that thing that we all want,” said Bridget Deegan-Krause. “She has brought us blessings of delight and joy.”
“I’m happy every day that I get up, and I say, ‘Dear Lord, thank you for this day,’” Sr. DeMuth said in her acceptance. “Looking at one and looking at another, everyone could receive this award. So I will receive it in your name. … I will continue to try to minister as long as the good Lord allows me to.”
Sean K. Doll O’Mahoney was honored with the Emergent Leader Award, for his service as a certification interviewer and a member and now co-chair of the Certification Commission. “I’m honored to receive this and richly blessed by this body of people,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to learn with you, and hopefully I’ll bring some bread or pizza to the work session this summer.”
Cardinal Cupich leads Sunday Mass
The NACC’s annual Mass to remember the members who have died within the past year was also memorable for its setting and its guest celebrant.
In the soaring space of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, led the NACC in worship, deliving a well-received homily and a few jokes. It was the first time in memory that a cardinal has addressed the NACC.
Preaching on the text of Jesus’ departure from the disciples, Cupich said that their being left behind in Jerusalem is “a metaphor for all the things in life that seem disastrous or catastrophic, that we think we need to flee and go to another place.”
He told of eliciting the painful story of a woman from Eastern Europe, speaking for the first time about why she emigrated to America — because her father told her, “You’re no good to me.”
“That woman was my grandmother,” he said, to murmurs of surprise. She built a good life for herself in America, “and she could see that those words were not the total of her life, even though they came from her father, because she had a loving Father.
Everyone, he said, has “Jerusalem moments” in their life, but they must be endured, because with the promise of Pentecost, “the story isn’t over yet. Give courage to the people in your ministry not to flee Jerusalem, but to wait for our own Father to keep his promise.”
Business meeting: How to attract more and younger chaplains?
The NACC’s annual business meeting on Saturday showed a picture of an organization with more money, fewer members, and several strategies to attract the younger generation.
Executive Director David Lichter said that membership has declined from 2,900 when joined the association in 2007 to 1,900 now. The largest category of membership is now laypeople, but their absolute numbers have not increased greatly, while the number of sisters has dropped dramatically. The association’s challenge is to “make sure more people know about chaplaincy,” he said. Last year 111 new members joined the association, about 60% of them lay, but “the numbers need to be much higher in our work and effort together.”
The NACC will continue to appeal to bishops and to members to find the next generation; one strategy has been to invite graduate theological schools to join the association, and a similar invitation may be extended to dioceses. Also, the ongoing Choose Chaplaincy marketing campaign is working to put online and printed material in front of students and young adults who might not know about the profession.
Treasurer Tim Serban said that the NACC’s total net assets have increased from $167,000 in 2008, during the worst of the financial crisis, to $1.45 million in 2019.
Board chair Jim Letourneau said that the NACC is working on partnerships in multiple directions, and “this conference is a birth of that strategy,” since it heavily involved other Catholic pastoral care organizations. The NACC has helped other associations set up competencies in fields such as criminal justice, diocesan ministry, and elder care, based on USCCB language for lay ecclesial ministry. This year, he said, the NACC will engage the USCCB “with our concern that Catholic pastoral care is in a crisis.”
During the question period, the issue of stagnant salaries and shrinking staff came up, and Serban said that a CHA subcommittee is working on benchmarks for staffing. Board member Bev Beltramo said that chaplaincy staffing is “symptom of a greater struggle in healthcare more broadly. We’re not icing on the cake. We’re the eggs or the flour. It’s critical and it’s core to all we do. But you need the education and the research to be able to tell the story.”
Serban added that at the moment, even if chaplaincy jobs open, systems are having a hard time finding Catholic candidates to fill them. But board member Carolanne Hauck pointed out that on an individual level, everyone can do something — she now has five people in the process of becoming chaplains whom she encouraged along the way.
An attendee who just finished his M.Div. and is starting a CPE residency asked about the expense of pursuing the profession, and board members agreed that it’s a problem. Hauck said she is “pained” by the low CPE stipend at her institution, and Beltramo pointed out that chaplains can find part-time work with less than four units of CPE. Letourneau said that the NACC already has invested in marketing and research, and it should investigate how else it can use its resources to remove barriers to the profession.
And Letourneau encouraged anyone else with questions or ideas to write to the board at email@example.com.
Sacred space enhances sacrament of anointing
By Carolanne Hauck
What a beautiful way to end a meaningful and busy Saturday, by participating in what presider Father Rich Bauer called the Catholic Church’s best kept secret: the sacrament of anointing. Different for us this year from years past was the sacred space in which the service was held; a small chapel on the second floor of the retreat center. Simple, small and sacred. One would have guessed hundreds were singing as the choir of chaplains, many of whom only met the day before, used their voices (and instruments) to call upon our healer, Jesus.
Father reminded us of a physician who used the metaphor of a burning building to describe what we as chaplains do. Instead of running from the fire, we run to it — and eventually we get burned, and we ourselves are the ones who need healing and anointing. He invited us to acknowledge the emotional and sometimes physical pain of caring for others and to accept and receive this rich gift from the Church for our own healing.
Chaplain Mary Tracy shared a beautiful reflection, tying the meaning of Paul’s reminder that we are one body with John’s words describing the women at the foot of the cross. She invited us to join Mary and bring to the dying Christ our sense of powerlessness and our own suffering. With our eyes closed, she led us to the face of Jesus, where we were encouraged to look directly into his eyes and notice his love for us and to feel the healing power that comes from his own vulnerability, his own humanness. Mary offered to us the idea of holding this visual mantra of Christ looking into our eyes as a way to continue to bring healing to ourselves, our community, and our world.
As the priests went before each person, anointing and praying for Christ’s healing, others also used their hands, their touch, to pray for one another’s healing. These moments called to mind the heart of chaplaincy and the mission of NACC — to bring the healing ministry of Jesus in the name of the Church to those in our care. On this night, chaplains received the healing ministry of Jesus through the Church.
The power of genuine listening
Genuine listening, even for a professional, can be a strikingly deep experience.
Robert Mundle, the Saturday afternoon plenary speaker at the NACC conference, told his audience of skilled listeners that they could help teach others to listen? There are 500,000 hospice volunteers in the United States, who want or need to develop their skills, and “Who better than us to provide this kind of training?”
Mundle, the author of “How to Be an Even Better Listener: A Practical Guide for Hospice and Palliative Care Volunteers” told the story of a care conference for a 93-year-old woman that the patient attended. Every specialist around the table gave input into how she should be treated, then the leader turned to her and asked what she thought and she answered “You’re all too young”
“And she was right,” Mundle concluded. “How could we know what like be 93? Or to be her at 93?” The conference should have let her speak first, and then proceeded with the responses from different disciplines.
Aside from basic skills such as being at eye level and not interrupting, Mundle talkedabout listening as a spiritual practice that can transform lives and relationships. “What does it feel like to listen to another person?” he asked. “And what does it feel like when someone really listens to you?” He did a research study of hospice volunteers, asking them to tell about a time in life when they were really listened to, and he found that it’s rare and powerful; some volunteers got emotional just remembering it. Another question was about times they needed a listener and didn’t get it, and the pain lasted for a long time.
In very difficult situations such as impending death, he said, “if you can’t think of anything to say, just say I can’t think of anything to say.” The really important thing is just to be with the other person.
Mundle gave a series of examples from various fields such as jazz, portrait photography, being in nature, and storytelling, to show how genuine connection can be shaped in various situations. Sometimes in that situation, he said, people will say, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I’ve never told anyone before” — and there were nods from the audience.
Taking the very long view of lay leadership
The shift toward lay leadership in the Catholic Church is just the latest in two millennia of changes, Zeni Fox believes — which is not to say that it’s easy.
Fox, the author of New Ecclesial Ministry: Lay Professionals Serving the Church, has made a career of studying lay leadership, and she thanked the NACC conference audience for providing her the chance to learn more about chaplaincy as a field of ministry.
Chaplains see spiritual care as a professional ministry, but Fox took a step back to the question of what “professional” means. Years ago, she served in the relatively new role of parish director of religious education, and worked with a group of peers that included three with master’s degrees and one without a bachelor’s degree who did her job very well. Confronted with that fact, Fox concluded at the time that “a professional is one who is acknowledged as a professional by other professionals.”
The line drew a laugh, but she pointed out that United States bishops wrestled with that question during the long process of producing the 2005 document “Coworkers in the Vineyard of the Lord.” Fox, who consulted with the bishops on that landmark publication, said that there was doubt up until the night before whether it would be accepted, and that the bishops chose not to include the term “professional” because it has no basis in Scripture or church teaching, and because they didn’t want to create an elite within the church.
What is the underlying relationship between people in ministry? Today, she said, in the Catholic Church and American society, it is primarily hierarchical. But the early church emphasized multiple ministries and communal lifestyle.
Over the course of church history, Fox said, “Certain modes arrive, flourish and then diminish,” citing the ruined monasteries that dot Europe. From the more recent past, the world of being known by name in church is gone, whether the backdrop was a rural village or an urban ethnic neighborhood. But even so, the need for personal interaction is “greater than it ever was.”
Therefore, she asked, “What does this call you to? The extension of care that will be needed.” Pastoral care as the gift of presence, she said, is “more valuable than any of the words you may say.” The word “pastor” derives from the Latin for “shepherd,” and early depictions of Jesus in art, she said, were exclusively as the good shepherd.
“Yours is ministry greatly needed in our day,” Fox said. “The Spirit of God is doing something beautiful and new,” even if “new charisms not fully understood or recognized.” But the charism of chaplaincy in particular, she said, is something to celebrate. The Catholic Church has not developed a tradition of celebrating lay calls, and she said that Friday’s certification Mass “moved me, that there was that affirmation of the connection to the church.” She concluded, “Think only a little bit about the present crisis. Think much more about what’s happening and rejoice.”
The spaces in between convening
When chaplains at the NACC conference are not gathered en masse in the chapel or auditorium, they are keeping their brains busy with workshops and interest group gatherings.
On Friday afternoon, about 20 people sat in knots to talk about geriatric ministry. Jennifer Paquette told several interested listeners about the resident-centered model that she saw in action at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, where residents can choose what to do and when.
Across the hall, 25 chaplains sitting in rows participated in one freewheeling conversation about ministry in the emergency department and intensive care. Talk moved over death cafes, bereavement trains, chaplains’ responsibilities for releasing dead bodies (and for keeping the body out of the morgue until family arrives), and gently isolating hysterical relatives in the emergency department so that their grief does not raise the emotional temperature of other patients’ families.
After-dinner workshops covered topics ranging from cultural clues to pastoral field education. At a roundtable for directors of spiritual care, common themes emerged — advocating for more staff, checking the consistency of chaplains’ skills, managing volunteers, cultural and language proficiency. Not every problem got solved, but directors were relieved to learn that others shared their struggles.
At a well-attended workshop on prison ministry, Fr. Dustin Seddon and Fr. George Williams said that at the moment, there is no infrastructure in place for Catholic prison ministry — unlike well-funded, well-networked evangelicals who are doing good work. The two priests have started the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition as a loosely organized information clearinghouse, with no current ambitions to incorporate or raise funds of their own.
The prison system, Fr. Williams said, “warps the reality that we are social beings.” Chaplains can offer prisoners human relationship, but need to be very aware of their own motivations in doing the work. “My biggest headache is volunteers, not prisoners,” he said. It is true that prisoners can be manipulative, but “when you take people’s choices away, the only way to get anything is by manipulating,” and chaplains, whether professional or volunteer “have to learn to say no lovingly.”
An unfortunate reality that most healthcare chaplains have not thought of is that a prison chaplain cannot be seen ministering to both prisoners and staff — the two groups are too opposed to each other. Eating lunch with the staff is a possibility, or doing marriages or baptisms off-site, but Fr. Williams said that if prisoners see him being friendly with the guards, he’d be viewed as “a cop with a collar on.”
Catholics can usefully advocate for reform at the local and national level, he said, and it is one of the rare issues that finds support on both sides of the political spectrum. But he believes that a century from now, people may view the current prison system the way we now view slavery. “This system cannot be made nice.”
Newly certified in a spiritual setting
The NACC’s 2019 conference officially opened Friday afternoon with a Mass to recognize the association’s newly certified chaplains. That event happens every year, but this year’s ceremony, in the ornate Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, was a different-looking affair from the usual hotel ballroom.
“You could feel the love in the room,” newly certified Tim Lankford said afterward. “Being in a church, there’s a sense of holiness. You couldn’t ask for a better setting.”
“This event always brings me annual joy,” said Bishop Donald Hying, the NACC’s episcopal liaison. “This is a moment to ponder the wonder of your existence. None of us willed ourselves to be. We just found ourselves in this skin, and sometimes we wonder why we are here. Let’s think about the people along the way who formed us, fed us, nurtured us, accepted us.”
Bishop Hying talked about moments of transcendence, whether through nature, art, prayer, or simple conversation, in which each person feels recognized as someone loved by God. Whether a hospital, prison, nursing home, family, or church, “every place where people hang out should be a place of transcendence and acceptance.”
Many of the newly certified chaplains might have felt similar emotions as they walked past the altar to receive their certificates and be congratulated by Bishop Hying, NACC Executive Director David Lichter, and Board Chair Jim Letourneau. The full congregation greeted them with long applause and arms extended in blessing.
“It’s a blessing to celebrate with the community,” said newly certified Fr. Ikechi Korie, OP. “A Mass is a thanksgiving, and I say thank you to God for making it possible.”
Pre-conference retreat: Time to breathe, to rest, to remember
By Kimberly Borin
As soon as you walked into the retreat space today, you could feel the energy, joy, and heartfelt care of our retreat leader, Beverly Ann Stewart. She led a day-long retreat titled “Leaning on the Everlasting Love of God, Pastoral Care and the Co-Accompaniment.” Stewart, the spiritual formation director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s pastoral ministry program at Catholic Theological Union, has the gift of storytelling and bringing to life the stories of others.
In our time together, the 50 attendees told a “Believe it or Not” fact about themselves. Participants shared beautiful moments of how they arrived to be a chaplain, and how their journey had unfolded in often very unlikely ways. As each story was told, gifts emerged that offered hope, laughter, “aha” moments, and reminders that we are held in grace and accompanied by God and the Holy Spirit at all times. The attendees’ words offered their own nourishment and affirmation, and they were held in hearts and hands of all who heard them.
Afterward, participants were led in a contemplative meditation and visualization, allowing us to imagine abiding in God’s love. The time for breath, surrender, quiet, encouragement offered another opportunity to trust in the unfolding of our lives, and to know that we are not only guided but deeply loved along the way. This reminder of leaning on the everlasting love of God allows us to remember that we are divine vessels and we can allow the love of God to move through us, granting us permission to trust and perhaps not have to work so hard.
Beverly Ann Stewart allowed us to enter with joy and to share our sacred journey stories. She gave us time to breathe, to rest and to remember that we partner with God and one another in our ministries of offering hope and tender care to all of those we serve. We were reminded that in our work, we also stand in the midst of mystery, in situations that are sometimes heavy with the paradox of grace and suffering on many levels. We were reminded to lean into God and with each other as we do this sacred work. We were also reminded to do the important work of self-care in whatever way fills our spirit, so that we can be grounded, centered, and ready for the work we are called to do. She reminded us that “a true healer is the one who heals himself first so others can benefit from his own healing.” [Hong Curley]
To cement the grounding and nourishment, participants created painted rocks, to express healing through the use of art. These word reminded us to continue to be open to the spirit, sing out our story, trust in the journey, lean into the partnering and abiding love of God. It was a nourishing day of stories and hope to sustain us for the journey ahead.
Coming soon: Full coverage of the 2019 conference
We are less than two weeks away from the start of the 2019 conference, “Partners in Pastoral Care: Continuing the Healing Ministry in the Name of the Church.” But Before you arrive at Mundelein, please bookmark this page and check it during and after your visit. Or, if you are unable to attend this year’s conference, stop back at this address for ongoing live coverage.
Vision editor David Lewellen will write and post several articles about the events of the conference while it is still in progress, and other articles will be added in the following days. And later in June, with some revisions and additions, that content will appear as our July-August issue of Vision.
2018 National Conference – Anaheim, California
A shared conference, and the road ahead
By David Lichter
We had a really good partnership in preparing for this 2018 Conference. I have a great working and professional relationship with Pat Appelhans, APC CEO, and several of their staff. Pat has been with APC right after the 2009 summit, and Carol Pape, APC’s COO, has been with APC almost as long as I have been with NACC, now 11 years. We have a deep mutual respect for one another, and we enjoy each other also! So, with Jeanine Annunziato leading our planning efforts, all augured well for a well-run conference. It was certainly more than that!
Summit 2009 was the last time we did anything collaboratively. I remember the experience of 1,800 people gathering for the opening ceremony and my carrying a round-shaped cut-crystal that sparkled with the lights, walking to the front and welcoming the throng. It was amazing.
However, I mention this because this year I was filled with awe and gratitude as I witnessed the opening ceremony of our 2018 conference, with the bells and songs of the children’s choir, the welcoming of our co-chairs, Mary Lou O’Gorman and Valerie Storms. I thought, “How far we have come as organizations and a profession!” We are blessed.
The spirit among our NACC members was wonderful as they mingled and exchanged in learnings and shared contacts with APC members. I sensed a profound mutual regard for one another – desiring to be “partners in shaping the future,” as the theme held forth.
On Sunday morning, July 15, of the conference, our executives and board leaders of our six strategic partners (AAPC, NACC, ACPE, APE, CASC/ACSS, NAJC) met to review and affirm our Memorandum of Understanding — a two-year, 24-month commitment to determine how we want to organize ourselves to be even stronger partners in shaping the future of chaplaincy. We are deepening relationships and capitalizing on strategic opportunities, to ensure that all those served by the associations have the best possible spiritual care, and to safeguard the future of the spiritual care profession. This MOU frames our commitment to develop a mutually agreeable and beneficial framework that will allow the member organizations to align respective resources, to take strategic action where goals and needs converge, and to develop services for our members, our employers and those we serve. Combined with the Joint Statement from the Strategic Partners in Spiritual Care (issued July 10, 2018), this MOU represents the next significant step in the integration of the profession.
I hope you share the awe and gratitude I experienced in that opening ceremony and continue to experience. The 2018 Conference and our common commitment with our Strategic Partners hold much promise for the future of our profession. It is worth repeating, “How far we have come as organizations and a profession!” We are blessed.
The missioning ceremony: Memories of a call
By Carolanne Hauck
NACC offers each of us the opportunity to see the sacred and holy in the work we do when we witness the missioning ceremony held during Mass at each year’s conference.
We are blessed to have the opportunity to take a moment and remember what it is that we are called to be. As I watched the newly certified promise to be faithful to their call to ministry, I found myself reaffirming my own commitment to chaplaincy, as I did ten years ago when I myself was called to minister to the sick.
Bishop Hying’s homily beautifully reminded each of us, the newly certified and those of us who have been in ministry for years, to be mindful of “moments of ministry,” to recognize that God is profoundly present in the here and now. He reminded us of kenosis, the emptying out of ourselves to be fully present; each of us allowing God to use us as his instruments of healing and peace. Isn’t that exactly what we are called to be as chaplains? In the day to day of our work, do we sometimes forget the sacredness of what we bring to the suffering in the name of Jesus?
As I listened to the newly certified promise to love the Lord, keep his word, and offer healing through their ministry and work, I couldn’t help but reaffirm that same promise myself and remain in awe that we are called by Christ to offer his compassion.
Brother Kenney Gorman, CFX, board-certified in 2001, offered the following from his own experience of participating in the ceremony: “I see people of hope and dedication to the mission of sharing and witnessing the compassionate presence of Christ to all those they will encounter, as well as those who will bless and impact their own faith journey.”
We are blessed to welcome and share in the healing ministry of Jesus with our newly certified sisters and brothers through NACC!
Bishop Vann: Bearing the cloak of love and mercy
The homily below was delivered by the Most Rev. Kevin W. Vann, Bishop of Orange, at the NACC’s Sunday Mass in Anaheim.
Dear friends and brothers and sisters all in the ministry of chaplaincy,
Welcome to beautiful Orange County – or as it is known, “the OC,” at least in some circles! Contrary to the cultural image that is sometimes portrayed, it is land of great beauty, generous individuals and great enthusiasm and engagement in the Faith. If you haven’t already, I suggest that you make a trip to the Christ Cathedral Campus. On this campus, we have an average of over 11,000 a weekend for 12 Masses in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. One of the main challenges that we face here, and in a number of our parishes, is insufficient space for parking and directing cars in and out.
Not long ago I made a trip to St. Joseph Hospital at night because my next-door neighbor was taken to the hospital. I feel very much at home in those environments, because hospital work — being a former medical technician — is still with me in some ways. I do take call occasionally and make it a point to visit families the days leading up to Christmas. As I was in the ER I was visiting with some of the many families — many of whom are immigrants — who now make ER their place of primary care. And when I visit one person, often there are calls to visit others. I was thinking of this Mass with all of you today in those moments, because I know that in some ways that is your life and ministry.
As I was preparing for today as well I thought that I would take a moment and look up the word “chaplain.” We can easily slip into theological jargon and forget the original meaning of the words — or maybe even how the meaning of our words is not always immediately clear to those whom we love or those to whom we are sent!
So I looked up “chaplain” and learned that it comes from the Latin word for cloak (cappelanus), that St. Martin of Tours gave to a beggar who was shivering in the cold. He took his sword and cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar! It brought to me vivid memories of when I first heard that story from the Dominican Sisters in Springfield, IL, who taught me, and who were part of our family in our growing-up years and still are.
It seems to me, then, that the ministry of the chaplain is to be the bearer of the cloak of God’s mercy and love to those whom we are sent (like all the ones in the ER that night for me). And sometimes, like Amos, it is very unexpected, and we are reluctantly sent. But as I learned from the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity who taught me in the seminary in St. Louis, nothing is really unexpected but always somehow in God’s providence — being chosen for this ministry, truly, reflecting the words of St. Paul. The tunic of St. Martin perhaps harkens back to the tunic of the Gospel today — which accompanies healing, freedom and repentance. It also accompanies us even in moments of rejection — because even those moments, it seems, can lead to new life, reflecting what St. Paul would say that “all things work to the good for those who love God.”
As you are together these days and go forth from here, I thank you for your ministry and I pray for you as bearers of the tunic of St. Martin — you are also “bearers of the mysteries of God!”
May the Lord bless you always and welcome once again to the Diocese of Orange!
James Mason: Hearing is not enough
By Jim Letourneau
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. – Martin Luther King, Jr. from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
This challenging quote from Dr. King served as an introduction to Dr. James Mason’s presentation, “Chaplains in the 21st Century: Implication for Leadership in the Face of Difference.” Given the theme for this year’s conference with the Association of Professional Chaplains, “Partners in Shaping the Future,” the message was particularly fitting. Sadly, the need for cultural competency and embracing a spirit of inclusion still exists, and perhaps that need is deeper than ever before.
Dr. Mason, the chief diversity officer for Providence Health & Services in Oregon, shared several pieces of data including the fact that women continue to earn 25% less than men for the same work and training. Echoing Dr. King’s quote from his introduction, the plenary speaker inspired a call to action, saying, “I’m sorry is not enough.” We must be agents of change.
Effective change demands personal investment and a wide perspective to include people on the margins. We must be willing to let our world views be challenged and transformed. As professional chaplains and Roman Catholics, of course we abhor humor and language that is detrimental to minority populations. But those obvious examples of prejudice may be the easiest to change.
What is more challenging is confronting our own unconscious bias because we are unaware how thought processes lead to discrimination. Any time we unconsciously think of another person as “other than me” and not “my sibling in God’s family,” we risk objectifying and treating another person as “different from,” “other than,” or God forbid, “less than” myself. Uncovering unconscious bias requires brutal honesty and humility.
Dr. Mason cited an organization’s mission and core values as part of the rationale for addressing diversity and inclusion. As professional chaplains, we are held accountable to the Common Competencies shared by our strategic partners. Our Code of Ethics calls us to “respect the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, sexual orientation, and religious diversity of other professionals and those served, and strive to eliminate discrimination” (102.44). Our competencies remind us that board-certified chaplains “provide spiritual care that respects diversity and differences including, but not limited to culture, gender, sexual orientation, and spiritual/religious practices” (PPS3).
Dr. Mason referenced the importance of establishing relationships with “natural networks of support” such faith-based institutions — a natural connection for spiritual care providers. He also challenged us to attend community events and celebrations that are important for diverse communities. He suggested we identify community leaders and discover the trusted voices in minority populations. We typically look for those voices in family networks. Dr. Mason now advocates that we also do that on a macro level by finding those voices in our communities.
“Connecting with clergy” is one of many action areas the plenary speaker promoted. This is a natural and expected connection that chaplains might be expected to foster. But if we are to seriously commit to concerns of diversity and inclusion, we also need to consider informal leaders and service providers in the community. To neglect these critical components would paint an incomplete picture of the populations we serve.
Dr. Mason described culturally competent leadership as “an active, developmental, and ongoing process” requiring self-knowledge, knowledge of those served, and the resources that can “empower and enrich the lives” of communities. Culturally competent leadership is not a destination but a journey of humble self-reflection and relationship-building in the context of a mosaic community.
Boissy shares stories of empathy and studies of satisfaction
By David Lewellen
When Adrienne Boissy was a young neurologist, she got a late-night call to the bedside of a young woman who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Boissy took some time to look up everything she could find on the disease, and walked into the patient’s room feeling prepared for anything. But the question that awaited her was, “I’m wondering if I should marry my boyfriend, so that when I can’t walk I’ll have someone to care for me.”
The doctor couldn’t answer that, of course, but they talked. “It was caring, not curing,” Boissy said during the final plenary session of the APC-NACC joint conference. “I can’t cure MS. I’m not clinically brilliant. But I do try to deal with the person in front of me, try to see their humanity, and that has shaped everything I’ve done.”
In addition to maintaining a neurology practice, Boissy, is now the chief patient experience officer for the Cleveland Clinic, helping to set strategy for the prestigious system.
She told the story of a factory worker diagnosed with MS who developed a rare complication to the drug she prescribed. But when she walked into his hospital room, “amid agonizing sobs, he tells me his son has been murdered.” To an audible gasp from the audience, she continued, “The floor fell out from under us, and I felt complete despair. I hung onto him.”
She paused to compose herself. “The first call I made was to spiritual care. His son was actually still alive, but on life support at another hospital, We got him to the main campus, and they saw each other before he passed.” Speaking of the chaplain, she said, “Although I’m sure he prayed with them, what I most appreciate was he showed up. He didn’t shrink away from the darkness in that room. I feel deeply the intrinsic power you have and feel gratitude for how it has benefited me and my patients.”
She paused again. “I brought some Starbucks napkins just in case this happened, and then I didn’t bring them up here with me.” A chaplain from the audience ran them up to her in a quick gesture of pastoral care.
Boissy blew her nose and continued, “Now I’m going to talk about you.” She described research that described how patients’ encounters with chaplains result in more satisfaction, higher quality, and lower cost. But, she concluded, “Why is it that the first time I heard of this is when I started Googling you in preparation for this talk?”
She described areas where chaplains make a difference, such as meeting with high-risk patients to discuss goals of care, end-of-life wishe, and healthcare powers of attorney. “Do any of you know anyone who’s talented at advance care planning and end of life?” she asked, deadpan.
In her younger days, Boissy did neurological research, “and I hated every single minute of it.” But when she became interested in patient satisfaction, she asked researchers to show her how to measure it.
At the Cleveland Clinic, she has led a system-wide effort to reduce feelings of burnout, which is epidemic among caregivers. But in trying to train 40,000 people, at first “we had no idea what we were doing.” Most doctors, she said, thought they were doing a great job of communicating. She recruited senior male surgeons to talk about empathy, knowing she’d need their influence. She also made sure all patient comments about clinicians were posted online, including the bad ones. “That shed some light on the blind spot,” she said. “You think you’re fantastic; your patients think something a little different.”
And during the course for Cleveland Clinic caregivers, she realized “we were creating a safe space for stories to come out. We had created vehicle for healing. No matter what (burnout) scale level you came in at, you got better.”
Chaplains, and all caregivers, “are facing a world where empathy and compassion are threatened,” Boissy said. “We must fight that. We are healers. And you, my fellow healers, have everything you need to step in and lead the charge on healing. Be much bolder. You stand with suffering others can hardly imagine. You open the door to the room no one else will go in. You come back the next day and the next. You have an opportunity to fit into the strategic agenda of every organization. … On behalf of every thank-you that never got said, I thank you for your incredible life-changing work.”
Newly certified chaplains feel like dancing
By David Lewellen
Two spiritual care associations celebrated their newly certified members and their longtime contributors at Saturday night’s APC-NACC banquet.
APC honored Patricia Murphy with its Anton Boisen Professional Service Award. Presenter George Fitchett praised Murphy’s “profound non-judgmental acceptance of people of all conditions” and said, “You have really helped to transform chaplaincy.” Murphy, speaking of colleagues over the years, said, “This award is for us.
The NACC’s Distinguished Service Award went to Mary Lou O’Gorman. Presenter Mary Heintzkill said that for decades she has “worked tirelessly for spiritual care on many fronts, both locally and nationally.”
In accepting the award, O’Gorman remembered three decades’ worth of efforts to collaborate among spiritual care groups and said, “Service in the NACC has been an extraordinary gift to me.”
Theresa Sullivan, accepting the NACC’s Emergent Leader Award, said, “I’m honored that the NACC has put its trust in me to help lead us forward.” To her three children, who were in the audience, she said, “Hospitality, respect, dignity, compassion are not necessarily the world’s definition of leadership. But I hope you turn the world upside down, like Jesus did.”
Following the speeches, the noisemakers on the banquet tables were put to good use as newly certified chaplains were called across the stage to receive their certificates. With cheers, whistles, bells, and finally pounding dance music, APC put to rest the old joke that Protestants are “God’s frozen chosen.”
Another new feature to NACC members was the poster presentation during the cocktail hour before the banquet. More than 20 chaplains and CPE students stood next to professionally printed summaries of their research or outreach efforts and answered questions from visitors. Topics included death cafes, impasses with patients and families in palliative care, Muslim parents and stem cell transplants, and the Archdiocese of Boston’s outreach efforts to make parishioners aware of palliative care.
Case study research points way forward for chaplaincy
By David Lewellen
Before chaplains think outside box, they should think hard about what’s inside the box.
That is why Rev. Dr. Steve Nolan titled his plenary speech “Lifting the Lid on Chaplaincy.” “The box I’m thinking of is the one marked outcomes and presence,” he said, referring to the traditional ways of thinking about spiritual care ministry. “This is a false dichotomy.” Outcome depends on being present, and chaplaincy of presence still desires good outcome.
But at the juxtaposition between outcomes and presence is case study research. This form offers “significant amounts of rich and compelling data,” said Nolan, a licensed psychotherapist and ordained Baptist minister and chaplain at Princess Alice Hospice in Surrey, England. “But we don’t realize our stories are data.”
He outlined several disparate published case studies, but “a common factor runs through them, which is relationship.” Using techniques such as building rapport, reflective listening, and withholding judgment, “Chaplaincy care has the form of psychotherapy.” Anticipating the murmur that ran through the room, he continued, “Hear me. It should be treated as a holistic therapeutic intervention in its own right” but not an intervention for any healthcare professional to apply.
Chaplaincy ministers to spiritual needs, but Nolan pointed out that the United States is starting to follow the path of his native England, and Europe as a whole, in declining figures for church attendance and participation. “I may very well be a visitor from your future,” he said.
What do chaplains offer? They affirm the divine or support transcendence. They work with a patient’s belief or life philosophy. They provide ritual, religious or not. They provide presence. All these roles, Nolan said, are ones that would be expected from a religious figure.
But the context is changing. In Great Britain, Nolan said, humanist chaplains are challenging the ministry of church-endorsed chaplains to care for non-religious people. And as church affiliation falls, more people may find themselves talking to a chaplain during their moment of crisis, rather than a parish clergyperson.
But religious vs. non-religious is another false dichotomy, Nolan said: “I don’t agree a chaplain can be a generic chaplain. We all have a view from somewhere, and it will inform our work.” The key, he said, is that nonreligious pastoral care at present fails to understand the role of spirituality. Religion and spirituality are “intimately connected, but not the same thing,” he said. “Religion is one expression of a much bigger phenomenon.”
In this changing climate, Nolan is uncertain how long chaplaincy will survive as a healthcare profession, but “the time to tell our stories is now,” he said. “We have fantastic stories to tell, and we need to tell our stories, because our stories are our data. Care for the human spirit, nothing more, nothing less. Tell your stories.”
Healing service washes participants in love
By David Lewellen
The NACC’s beloved annual service of healing was marked by anointing and sacraments, but mostly by love.
“I felt so much love,” said Rosana Slezeviciute, who received the sacrament of anointing the sick for the first time ever on Friday night. In her role as a trauma chaplain, “I’ve seen so much death and I’ve begun to feel so much heaviness” that she worried she could not minister effectively without some relief for her psychic pain.
As Fr. Richard Bauer anointed her and called her by name, “I felt that I’m loved and I’m not alone. We’ll be together and everything will be OK. God is here. You don’t have to go looking for God.”
Four priests ministered to dozens of people in need of healing during the service, and many more congregants came for fellowship or to offer their hands to lay on those who were sick.
Delivering the homily, NACC board member Carolanne Hauck told a story similar to Slezeviciute’s of her own childhood, when she was facing an operation to cure her hip dysplasia that had made one leg longer than the other. Surrounded by a circle of people three or four deep, all laying hands on her and praying for her, “I felt overwhelmed,” she remembered. “I was washed in love. It’s still hard to describe how I felt at that moment. I thought, ‘This is what matters, this is what’s important, not how my leg feels.’”
And later, she said her parents told her that people in her circle “felt connected to God in a way they hadn’t before.” She asked, “Where will you find your friends in life? Could Christ work through them?”
NACC business meeting considers future initiatives
By David Lewellen
The NACC Board of Directors used Friday’s business meeting to explain the organization’s new initiatives and partnerships to promote pastoral care.
“It may sound like NACC is changing who we are, shifting focus,” said Jim Letourneau, the chair-elect of the board. “But our mission and vision have never changed. In fact, they’ve inspired us to interpret our mission and vision in new and different ways.”
The first effort will be a marketing program among Catholics to raise awareness of chaplaincy as a vocation. Members with experience in the field have formed a marketing advisory panel, and Westworld Consulting has been hired for a focused, short-term Choose Chaplaincy campaign, offering “inspiring examples of why people should want to join us” on the website and social media platforms.
APC and NACC have already collaborated on palliative care training and standards, but the two groups have now contracted with Transforming Chaplaincy to look at evidence-based outcomes for chaplaincy certification: “What works, what doesn’t work, how we can improve the certification process.” Also, national third-party surveys on staffing models and on compensations structure will be shared with members by end of year via NACC Now, the biweekly email newsletter.
Another collaboration is with the five strategic partners in pastoral care — CASC, AAPC, ACPE, APC, and NAJC. In the next 24 months, the six groups have agreed to work on professional ethics and advocacy for spiritual care.
Collaboration with other Catholic Church organizations will also be a major emphasis in the near future. Pastoral care is also needed in prisons, detention centers, parishes, and homes, and deacon training varies in every diocese, but there is no national program or standard. “NACC has so much to offer to support and strengthen the pastoral care ministry,” Letourneau said. The Vatican and the USCCB are studying prison ministry, and they received 600 responses to a webinar on the topic in four days. “Clearly there’s a need and a desire,” Letourneau said.
The third priority is to discern how the NACC can organize itself to achieve the first two. “It’s not quite as clear as the first two at this time, because we have a lot of moving parts,” Letourneau said. But the picture should be clearer a year from now as the organization seeks outside funding sources to develop new programming.
Tim Serban led a listening session divided by tables that provided written feedback for the board to assess.
Before the meeting, Linda Arnold led a memorial service for NACC members who have died within the past year.
“This is truly a kairos moment in the life of NACC,” Beverly Beltramo said in her closing prayer. “So much is possible, so much is yet to be born.”
NACC honors patient-centered care advocate
By David Lewellen
Beverley Johnson received the NACC’s annual Outstanding Colleague award at the association’s membership luncheon on Friday. Johnson, the president of the Institute for Patient and Family-Centered Care, which has worked for decades to help healthcare organizations to partner with patients and families in care planning.
“We’ve had the opportunity to work with so many chaplains to improve the culture of so many organizations,” Johnson said in her acceptance speech. It’s very easy for healthcare to compartmentalize into silos, she said, but “we can change that if we participate across disciplines. That includes chaplains, but it also includes patients and families
She ended with the story of her own mother, who died recently at age 104. Five days before the end, she told her daughter she was ready to go, and Johnson was able to advocate for her. “Thank you for teaching me to do that,” she told the audience of chaplains.
Disaster training after two deployments
By Nancy Many
NACC member Nancy Many, who was deployed to offer spiritual care after Hurricane Irma in Florida and after the Las Vegas concert shooting, is taking the Red Cross’ annual pre-conference training on disaster response. She shares some initial thoughts below.
Soon I will be sitting in the Red Cross’ class for board-certified chaplains attending the annual APC/NACC convention. I have been waiting for the class to be given near me since I found out about it last fall. I joined the Las Vegas chapter of the Red Cross in the summer of 2017. I did all the courses I thought I needed at the time and deployed to the Florida Keys as spiritual care support after Hurricane Irma. That was an amazing experience. I returned to Las Vegas a day or two before Oct. 1.
I saw on the news what had happened at the concert and called the Red Cross to see where I could be useful. I arrived in the early hours of Oct. 2 at the main police station where people were gathering. The mix included family members desperate for news of their loved ones, and family members who already knew they had lost a loved one. Bystanders still covered in blood (but unhurt themselves) were side by side with the incoming responders from ATF, FBI, and many other agencies.
Every hour a spokesperson would read the list of names of the injured and which hospital they were at. This took some time due to the sheer volume of the injured. The room would be silent as the spokesman read names alphabetically, one hospital at a time, and friends and family awaited their loved one’s name. With each reading, the room got more somber – as if such a thing was possible.
I moved around the room offering presence, support and a listening ear where possible and prayers when desired.
A few days later, I learned that even though I was on my second deployment, I had missed the five-hour class. Now, as I wait for it to start, I wonder how it will be for me. I hope I will learn new skills, and perhaps have more comfort and peace within myself about the two disasters I have already been present for. One was a natural disaster, and one was entirely man-made.
In Florida, I loved seeing the “Red Cross Response” live and being a part of it. Yes, it’s chaos and disorganized, but the human spirit responds, and the care and interaction in the communities was amazing. But in Vegas, the well oiled machine of ‘responders’ angered me and made me realize that we (as a country) have normalized mass shootings.
2017 Conference Coverage
Business meeting: Past successes, future opportunities
By Karen Pugliese
Quietly waiting for the NACC business meeting to begin, I found myself visualizing and cataloguing all the similar meetings I’ve attended over the past 34 years. As I reflected on this meeting, located on Native American tribal grounds, the image of “Vision Quest,” surfaced as an evocative symbol of our prophetic call as chaplains, and our ministry as a professional association.
Board Chair Mary T. O’Neill welcomed participants and new noard members Beverly Beltramo and Carolanne Hauck. Jim Letourneau, Chair Elect, led the gathering prayer.
Describing this year’s pre-conference board meeting as “full, creative, energizing and substantial,” Executive Director David Lichter set the tone for the business meeting agenda. His report, “Snapshots from 2016”, was characterized by the word “collaboration,” and structured in the form of three significant signposts: Looking Back at accomplishments; Present Day membership issues and survey responses; and Looking Forward to strategic priorities.
Looking Back. David expressed deep appreciation for a highly successful year. As I listened to his coverage of the financials and the increase in gifts, sponsorships and partnerships, I was aware that many of our hearts were burning with gratitude for David’s 10 years of stewardship, this year resulting in an amazing $193,441 surplus. Tremendous support for visioning the future of chaplaincy, and in particular, the pastoral ministry of the Church, came from a $30,000 Raskob grant – a Catholic foundation funding our planning process. The Goal IV Team is developing future scenarios for NACC, identifying settings for pastoral care and grappling with questions such as – what levels of competence and training are needed? What kind of programming would be necessary, and what would the outcome look like in terms of recognition or credentialing? The team will apply for a Phase II Grant for a feasibility study of expanding our focus to additional ministries within the church. David and NACC state representatives have engaged bishops in dialogue focused both on promoting chaplaincy and how NACC can assist dioceses in ministry formation.
Collaboration continues with our cognate partners in professional chaplaincy. NACC partnered with ACPE, APC, CASC and NAJC in creating common certification competencies, narratives, questions and intended outcomes. Planning is in process for a joint APC-NACC conference in Anaheim, CA, in July, 2018. Just a few days before our conference, plans were confirmed for a joint ACPE, APC, CASC and NAJC conference in 2020.
Present Day. Together with our strategic partners NACC is looking at developing associate levels and expanding certification. On the closing day of the conference, the conversation was scheduled to continue with the CHA Advisory Council as well.
Beverly Beltramo presented preliminary results of the Membership Survey, especially related to sustainability given concerns about aging membership and fewer new members. Five hundred and forty respondents identified five critical areas: professional advocacy; new ministry settings and new ways to minister; financial stability and job security; advocacy with bishops and the Church; and continuing to be the presence of Christ in an increasingly bottom-line-driven industry. Asked if NACC should seek to strengthen relationships with cognate chaplaincy groups, with other ministry groups within the Church, or both, more than 300 responded “Both.”
Looking Forward. Jim Letourneau outlined a three-pronged approach to our strategic priorities this year. First, promotion of professional chaplaincy, including advocacy, marketing and recruitment efforts; professional development (research, advanced certification and clinical outcomes); and cultivation of strategic partnerships.
Jim characterized the current approach to Catholic spiritual/pastoral care ministry as “electric.” This encompasses competency development; services; and educational resources and partnerships within ministry groups. Upcoming meetings with bishops will clarify what we can offer them and their dioceses, and what types of memberships, formation and cultivation might be provided. The third focus will be to clarify relationships and expectations for a Phase 2 Raskob Foundation grant.
Tim Serban led a listening session, inviting participants to reflect on what questions might be surfacing and what further information we need. Comments from table discussions were recorded and collected. Feedback will be summarized and shared with the board and members in the coming weeks.
The meeting concluded as it began — with gratitude and recognition, and with the blessing of 25-year anniversaries, NACC staff and volunteers.
As it was for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, there was more to talk about than time for conversation. We were encouraged to look to NACC Now and Vision, as well as local gatherings and networking calls, for updates as we continue the quest for a meaningful and sustainable future for NACC.
Karen Pugliese, BCC, is an advanced practice chaplain at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, IL.
Love is Contagious: Anointing
By Amy Mickolite
All of the conference activities brought spiritual gifts but it was the liturgical events that bonded the group as a community in Christ. Sunday evening’s service of healing was one of the most profound religious encounters I have experienced.
The ceremony began with illumination. Volunteers thoughtfully placed candles on each of the main tables; additionally, they placed a single candle in front of photos of deceased NACC members. Fr. Richard Bauer, presider, welcomed all to “be present in the moment but mindful that tomorrow we go back to our own Jerusalem, and may we do so with our Hearts on Fire.”
Fr. Bauer invited us to join him as he blessed the holy water. Barbara Burkhardt’s reading from James 5 reminds us: “the Lord’s coming is near. Be patient in the face of suffering.” Mark 5:21-34 was the Gospel reading recounting several miraculous healings by Jesus, particularly the woman who had so much faith that “if I just touch his clothes I will be healed.” Sr. Rosemary Abramovich, OP, offered an insightful homily based on the scripture.
James tells us that in time of sickness the “elders of the church will pray over those in need and anoint them in the name of the Lord.” During the liturgy of the anointing, we were once again welcomed to raise hands and bless the oil. This invitation from our presider was a powerful gesture of spiritual hospitality celebrating the communal Kingdom of Christ.
Along with Fr. Bauer, four other priests assisted in the sacramental blessing. Those desiring anointing, the vast majority present, remained seated, and others stood with those individuals as the sacrament was offered. The act of witnessing and laying hands on those receiving sacramental anointing was truly grace-filled. It was humbling to bear witness to the far-reaching impact of suffering. I believe we also experienced healing.
The power of the sacramental act, of singing, and of offering spiritual love to one another spilled into our reciting the Lord’s Prayer and offering of peace to one another. Fr. Bauer suggested that each of us recite the prayer in our language of origin. Many voices in unison but vastly different tones and words created a feeling that our faith was strong enough to conquer any ills. Our heartfelt exchanges of peace mirrored our spiritual fervor. Simply shaking hands would not have sufficed.
At the close of the service most lingered for a time, wanting to remain in this beautiful sacred space. “It was a meaningful liturgy with such appropriate music,” said Alycia Gorman, my tablemate. Fr. Fidelis Umukoro, seated next to me, added, “It was a spirit-filled and holy celebration.”
Our music ministers were a consistent presence throughout the conference. These volunteer musicians, who serve regularly at various churches in the local diocese, formed a new cohesive professional group. NACC staff, leadership and members offer sincere gratitude for the commitment and stellar efforts of main vocalist Barbara Guenther, fellow singers Angelica Facio and Vernon Reza, flutist Carol Feeney, guitarist and vocalist Steve Herrera, and Kevin Newman on piano and voice accompaniment.
Amy Mickolite is a palliative care chaplain at Wellspan Health York Hospital in York, PA.
Wind of the Spirit pushes retreat participants
By Davlyn Duesterhaus
The gusty 50 mph winds could have discouraged participants in the NACC Day of Reflection to even want to continue the day’s journey. But those who did go, and who even ventured onto the walking trails, felt the mighty wind of the Spirit moving, pushing, and even unbalancing them during the times of reflection.
The director of the Norbertine Spirituality Center, Meg Ashcroft, led us in the journey to reveal new depths of meaning in Luke 24:13-35, the scripture for the Conference theme: “Hearts on Fire: Our Own Emmaus Journey.” With quotes, reflection questions, rituals, music, poetry, sharing times as well as silent periods, each was given freedom to go inward, remain within, then to resurface hoping the Spirit burned anew within our hearts.
“Lightening the Load” (poem of Francis Dorff, O.Praem.) encouraged us to “dump the thousand things we’ve brought along” to set the tone for the day. Following some silence, Meg read from Luke 24:13 – 21a. In a lectio divina way, some spoke of a word or phrase that stood out; mine was “while.” Quoting from Edith Stein, “walk with me along the next stretch of road before me,” Meg invited us to experience Jesus “drawing near” during the time for reflection. Personally, Jesus was near in a fellow retreatant as we walked together part of the time. In our conversing, the “while” of the unknown in my life became comfortable through the peace that Jesus was truly near.
Meg proclaimed the second selection (Luke 24:21b-27) and discussed how chaplains, and those in ministry, give and give and give but fail to be generous to themselves. Leading the group into the next reflection, she prepared a quote from John Churchman: “Companioning one through the mystery of suffering begins with a simple yes. … simple yes when called upon … end(s) up being graced in my helping of others.” That line, and the questions given, helped us ponder experiences from personal or other persons’ suffering, pains, and dying to self.
The final section (Luke 24:28-35) was read, followed by singing, “Stay with me, remain with me, watch and pray, watch and pray.” Meg directed us to reflect on the question, “What do you most want to ‘go and tell’ the people who are in your life?” The sharing could take any form — story, song, insight, affirmation, image, dream, poem — and she asked us, when returning, to bring a stone or pebble for the closing ritual.
With permission from another retreatant, I write a summary of her story about being in a desert of life, and that in this desert of New Mexico, a companion was praying with her for physical healing. Her chaplains’ department had been downsized, leaving only and her companion as full-timers. The news upset her emotionally and physically, and she became very ill. As the two were conversing and praying, she heard a voice ask, “What do you want?” It was as if Jesus drew near and heard all she was going through. His presence overwhelmed her, bringing relief and tears of comfort. The voice was “Jesus” in another chaplain, who seemed to feel the angst, and spoke to her from behind. And Jesus drew near. …
For the closing ritual, each person placed his or her stone creating, a cairn as seen in the picture taken by another participant. God invites you to participate, also.
In reading this glimpse of the NACC Day of Reflection, may you experience your own Emmaus journey anew. May your hearts be on fire as Jesus draws near.
Davlyn Duesterhaus, BCC, is a chaplain at BSA Hospice in Amarillo, TX.
Restored and renewed
By Mary Columbo Reichert, BCC
I always approach the conference as a combination spiritual adventure and professional training time and I always hope to leave restored in spirit and renewed in calling. Particularly since I was receiving my certification this year, I approached it the same way, and I was not disappointed.
I shared a shuttle from the airport with other attendees, and we laughed and joked and became friends along the way. As we entered the winding road that led to the resort, we moved from fun-loving to reverential. The mountains seemed to demand respect, and we obliged. I was struck by a sense of sacredness in the Pueblo that invited me to enter a place of openness and peace that I often lose in the day to day.
My journey continued on the day of reflection as Meg Aschcroft helped us get “In Step with the Grace of the Moment” through readings, reflection and sharing. The conference opening ceremony and prayer service continued the momentum, and we all swayed, danced and clapped as we sang our proclamations that “we are marching, singing, dancing, praying in the light of God.”
On Saturday afternoon, we celebrated the Eucharist together and my years of work toward board certification were acknowledged. We 24 who were present had congratulated each other during our rehearsal the day before, and now we took our places for formal recognition and missioning. As we stood at the front of the room, the group raised their hands and offered a blessing on us and our work. The energy was palpable, and I realized that there was synergy here. We were being sent to our work and we were also witnessing to the others the importance of this call. This was a dual blessing.
Workshops covered many topics. The ones I attended reviewed the components of a good story and clear communication; how family dynamics affect spiritual care; and the chaplain’s role in bioethics conversations. I was grateful to explore the skills I use in my work.
The plenary sessions provided insights I could apply to both my work and personal life. Some of the lessons were: Unmet expectations lead to disillusionment but open-mindedness allows for a reinterpretation that offers healing; awareness of what resonates or disturbs me may help me identify growing edges; and I can honor the uniqueness in others and still be faithful to my core being.
Beyond the learning was a powerful sense of camaraderie and strength. Whether sharing in worship, meals or casual conversation, we listened, supported, comforted and encouraged one another in ways that honored the Sacred in our midst. As I left the Pueblo after the conference, I realized I had been restored and renewed, and I said a silent thanks for this time and this place and these people.
Mary Columbo Reichert, BCC, is the weekend house chaplain at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Orlando, FL.
Reyes offers catalytic conversions with conversing narratives
By Julianne Dickelman
Dr. Raymond Reyes, inciting us to sing the world into being, woke us up and gathered us together on the final morning of our conference, rousing us with song, story, chanting, and much laughter. One needed to simply consent to be immersed into his rhythmic, passionate bursts of energetic language and being. Dr. Reyes’ message was felt as much as heard.
The poet’s role, he reminded us, is to confront complex issues of the time, to create great dialogue, and to celebrate both. Dr. Reyes challenged us, in his alliterative alchemy of multiple images and provocative metaphor, to be transformed — and to be agents of transformation.
Weaving personal stories rooted in his Mexican and American Indian heritage, theology, and Jesuit principles imbued in his almost 30 years as professor and administrator at Gonzaga University, Reyes inspired us into that dialogue between our particular narratives and our complex cultural and societal issues.
Those issues of our time are many, illustrated by Reyes’ remark, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls, some people build windows.” Walls against diversity. But diversity, Reyes posits, is God’s way of being in our world. Diversity is a living curriculum toward love and service. So, he reminds us, we are called to window-building — windows that open to promote consciousness, windows through which the winds of justice (“what love looks like in public spaces”) might blow. And, his imagery continues, like salmon swimming upstream, we struggle against the current, but we are compelled to continue this journey, speaking truth to power, knowing that “courageous conversation creates caring community.”
If the source of all conflict, perhaps the bricks that build these walls, are the three R’s — Race, Religion and Resources — then the three R’s essential to open windows must be to know the power of ourselves and the other in Relationship; to know what we care about and make it Relevant without sacrificing what we believe; and to act on what we care about out of Respect, or, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “to act in the spirit of sacred hospitality.”
Dr. Reyes continued to stir our imagination referencing celestial navigation, the ancient science of position-fixing that enables a navigator to transition through a space using three navigation points. But rather than the stars a mariner might employ, Reyes offers us Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection as our reference points, as we traverse the often painful and humbling journey on our Emmaus roads, trying to re-locate ourselves, awakened and in service. He illustrated these reference points with stories from his own journey out of anger toward love, toward seeing people as “mysteries and not problems,” by hearing through “love that listens.”
So many thought-provoking images, language potions, catalyzing our conference conversations and kindling alchemical fires within — so that we might return to our daily work knowing who we are, what we value, as well as our purpose and destiny. Dr. Reyes concluded with inviting us to be hollow bones through which God breathes the melodic, and to have strong backbones to have the courage to hold others accountable. And to keeping singing and dancing — and laughing, because humor is “rain for parched imaginations.”
Many paths, one truth; many faiths, one God
As well as many languages and cultures, God has also ordained many religions, Emmanuel Lartey told the NACC conference on Sunday.
“God wishes there to be many different religious traditions and for people to belong to many religious journeys,” said Lartey, a professor of pastoral theology at Emory University in Atlanta. It is a conviction born of his own experience as a native of Ghana, a member of a pluralistic culture that was open to many influences.
Christianity and other Western influences, of course, came to most of Africa under the banner of colonialism. But post-colonial African Christianity continues to re-evaluate colonial attitudes.
As an example, Lartey cited the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. The migratory people who settled and began to build upward were, he said, interfering with the divine diversity of creation. But in the hegemonic, name-seeking desire to dominate, the “variety intended to be characteristic of humanity was at risk. … This is very essence of colonization. The language, custom, way of life of one people imposed upon all. God the creator of all diversity cannot abide such hegemonic control.” Far from being a punishment, in God’s creation of multiple languages, “Now each must have their own voice, each must speak for themselves. God pluralizes their culture and their way of life.”
Language is important to diversity, but so is religion, and Lartey cited examples from the New Testament, in Jesus’ encounters with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman. Both were of different faiths from Jesus, but Jesus praised both for the strength of their faith. In the latter story in particular, in response to the woman’s challenge, “Jesus has to reappraise his focus and recognize there are others outside his own ethnic religious tradition who are also children of God,” Lartey said. “She challenges master’s own ministry and life purpose. Even by his own stance he had to act differently.” But commentators hardly ever point out those differences of religion.
In religious dialogue, “doctrine is the least useful starting point,” Lartey said. Only after empathic interpersonal interaction will people be willing to hear others fully. “But this is what you all do, isn’t it?” he asked his audience. “As chaplains in different settings, you treat each other with respect and work with other people.”
For instance, when Lartey led small church in Accra, Ghana, a member’s daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As well as prayer and support from the church, the man also sought help from a traditional healer. Lartey joked that he was surprised to learn about it, but “who was I to condemn him? Who was I to say, ‘Don’t do that?’ ”
In the Jains of India, Lartey found flexibility, tolerance, pluralism, as well as some useful metaphors about truth. It can be seen as the summit of mountain, with many paths up, but failure likely if it is pursued as a conquest. The pursuit of truth is also like a cut diamond with many facets, but “whatever angle the stone is held up to the light, the light itself remains constant.”
Several audience members questioned how the pluralistic view reconciles with John 14:6, “None shall come to the Father except through me.” “How about if I understood that to be a Christological function statement?” Lartey answered. “It is Christ’s work to bring people to God. How he chooses to do it is not up to me. He may do it outside my particular congregation. He’ll do it.”
“Religious plurality is divine,” Lartey said, and interreligious spiritual care can be one means to normalize it. But he asked his audience to cultivate respect and “acknowledge you do not know it all. … Shake off the shackles that have subjugated and kept people from expressing what they have experience of God in their lives.”
“God often reveals Godself through encounters with strangers, people of diff cultures, languages, religious traditions. People we despise or ridicule,” he concluded. “May we use our traditions as steppingstone points of contact to reach out to God beyond us all.”
Recognition for Nancy Cook, George Fitchett, Cecille Asekoff
The NACC honored one longtime member and two longtime friends Saturday night for their contributions to the association and to chaplaincy as a whole.
Nancy Cook, regional director of spiritual care at Christus Southeast Texas Health System, received the Distinguished Service Award for her work on the NACC’s Standards Commission, Finance Committe, and as a state liaison and interview team educator.
“Her positive energy and charisma has spread across the entire Christus system,” said Fr. Emmanuel Chikezie in his introduction. “Nancy is a very humble individual. She doesn’t want accolades. But Nancy, I’m giving you that today.”
Cook thanked her team at Christus and “a lot of other people who work just as hard and just as long.” Chaplaincy as a profession has “made great strides, and there are also great strides ahead of us,” she said. “But we will get to where we need to be.”
George Fitchett, PhD, an APC chaplain and one of the leading researchers of spiritual care, received the Outstanding Colleague Award. Decades ago, “he wasn’t welcomed with open arms by chaplains or by doctors, but he persevered,” said Caterina Mako in her introduction. “He’s available to anyone who comes to him with a thoughtful question or a challenge.”
Fitchett thanked the NACC for years of support and friendship, in particular its support of the Templeton Foundation grant that funded the Transforming Chaplaincy program. “That work will come back to you” in its future benefits, he said.
The association’s other Outstanding Colleague, Cecille Asekoff, helped found Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains in 1989 and has been a long-standing advocate for professional chaplaincy. David Lichter told the audience that Asekoff recognized that collaboration is “only possible if you are deeply rooted in your own tradition. … She insists on mutual respectful collaboration.”
“Every faith group has its own uniqueness which must be preserved,” Asekoff said in her acceptance, and that was one reason she felt a kinship with the NACC: “We did not want to get swallowed up in the melting pot of bigness.” Instead, she used the metaphor of the tossed salad, where “a tomato stays a tomato, a cucumber stays a cucumber, as part of one delicious whole.”
Newly certified chaplains get warm welcome
Twenty-four recently certified chaplains celebrated the latest step of their journeys Saturday as they received their certificates in a missioning Mass.
Whatever a patient’s religion, “you let them know ‘I’m here for you, I want to hear who you are, I want to hear who God is to you,'” Fr. Jack Crabb, SJ, said in his homily. He charged the newly certified to practice good self-care, “but I’m not going to ask for a show of hands on how many do it.” He praised the new generation of chaplains for taking up the mission. The cohort received enthusiastic cheers from their more experienced colleagues and received their certificates from Executive Director David Lichter, Board Chair Mary T. O’Neill, and Mary Davis, co-chair of the Certification Commission.
Following the Mass, the newly certified went outside for a chilly but beautiful group photo against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.
Through the ceremony, “I felt I belonged to the NACC,” said Fr. Akajiaku Eluka of Patchogue, NY. “I got to meet my (professional) family.” Deacon Michael Bolesta of Addison, TX, said, “They could have just mailed it, but coming here made it special — and to receive it in the context of Mass.”
“It’s huge. I have no words,” said Kristie Zahn of Racine, WI. “It’s very humbling and very rewarding.”
Eugenia Lai of Sugarland, TX, brought her husband and daughters to see the ceremony. The family made a point of coming in person, she said, because “It means a lot to be commissioned by the whole congregation to serve.”
“Is research part of our Emmaus journey?”
Allison Delaney opened her Saturday afternoon workshop with that provocative question, and answered, “I think so.” Delaney is currently pursuing a master’s of public health degree under the auspices of the Transforming Chaplaincy program, and although she said candidly that the work has been harder than she expected, “it’s a waste unless I can help you.”
Her first research project has been asking chaplains what questions they want research to solve for them. The top response has been outcomes, whether issues such as certification or number of patient visits make a difference in the outcome of treatment. Another response was how to avoid burnout. But, she cautioned, “Just like praying is different from talking about prayer, talking about research is different from doing research.
Another afternoon session dealt with alcoholism and other addictions as spiritual problems. J. Randle Adair, an Albuquerque internist, said that families that include an addict “don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.” And treating those spiritual problems is much more difficult, and requires more focused and sustained intervention, than it would be for an emotionally healthy family.
Walking the road, telling the story
For the second time in two days, the NACC conference heard the story of the road to Emmaus on Saturday. But as well as a theological message, Dr. Megan McKenna used the account as a lesson in the power of story.
“All stories are true, and some actually happened,” said McKenna, speaking in front of the altar and podium. “They’re about creating community and conversation. They’re the glue that holds community together.”
For chaplains, and indeed for anyone, “you approach everyone in ministry with your story,” said McKenna, an author, theologian, storyteller and lecturer. “There is only one story. How do you tell it? We believe life is stronger than death, forgiveness is stronger than violence. We forget that sometimes, so we talk about it as healing and meaning.”
And, she added, “Healing and curing are two totally different things.” Most people want to be cured, to have the problem removed, but healing offers spiritual peace. “We’re all going to die. We caan’t get cured from that reality,” she said. “But healing is always there.”
The Emmaus story, she said, is a “Luke sandwich,” and considering only the famous middle part is like “trying to eat peanut butter and jelly without bread.” She told the story in three parts, using the liturgical language to introduce each, and she urged her hearers to try to listen with fresh ears: “These stories are hard because you think you’ve heard them.”
McKenna sought feedback and reactions from the audience, and offered further commentary of her own. She did not condemn the male disciples for disbelieving the women’s account: resurrection is both scary and implausible, so “how long would it take you to believe that someone who is dead and buried is now alive?”
To explain the disciples’ lack of recognition, she said, “You work with people every day whose eyes are restrained from seeing Jesus. Grief fear, anger, suffering, betrayal — everything blinds us. Then the recognition of who Jesus is lasts that long (finger snap) and then he disappears. Then we go back and face all the realities we’ve been running away from.”
McKenna also shared a painting and poem that imagines a servant girl recognizing Jesus before the disciples did. “If we believe the risen Lord is here, we’re the servants,” she said. “But be aware that you’ve seen him before and you’ve heard his voice. You’re very good at listening.”
She continued, “The story begins when teller stops talking. What do you do next? If you want him to stay, get together. You tell story with others, you summon the presence of the risen Lord that stays and stays. There’s more power in this room than anything you’re doing separately. Look around. What does it look like? This is as good as it’s going to get.”
McKenna concluded with a story of a girl lost in the woods for weeks who eventually found a boy who had been lost for months. “What if we are all lost and meant to find each other?” she asked. “This what you do in your ministry. You were meant to find each other, and in finding each other, find God. May you go with God and ever know where you are.”
Corn necklaces as a sign of welcome
Pueblo women from the local area greeted NACC members Friday afternoon with a traditional Pueblo greeting and a corn necklace. The beautiful keepsake necklace is a symbol of friendship, prosperity, and good health.
A diverse set of workshops
NACC members spent the morning learning about topics as diverse as storytelling, ministry to the “nones,” and diversity itself. In “Diversity, Social Justice, and Pastoral Competence,” Thomas Chirdo, BCC, an ACPE supervisor, said, “We are not just individuals interacting. There are multiple group identities, each with a particular history that bears on our relationships.”
Race and gender are obvious categories, but Chirdo asked participants to recognize Jesus himself as a person in the margins, outside the power structure of the Roman Empire. “How is power used?” he asked. “As a supervisor, I know a lot of information about my students that they don’t know about me. That’s a power difference.”
In “Spiritual but Not Religious: A Path for Connection and Comfort,” Kristie Zahn told participants to consider, “Where can I build bridges?” Members at this conference come from a very particular faith tradition, and the trend especially among younger people is for a more individual, amorphous experience of “the big questions.”
On the road to interpretation
The disciples who failed to recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus were victims of their own expectations, Dr. Diane Bergant told the NACC conference on Friday afternoon.
In a fast-moving, well-received theology lesson, Dr. Bergant, CSA, pointed out that ancient Israel had different meanings for “messiah” or “anointed one,” and most of Jesus’ followers expected a political leader and had their hopes dashed. “Jesus was a disappointment,” she said, deadpan. “But don’t we always hope that the next governor, president, superior, boss, will be better than the one we have?”
Bergant, an emerita professor of Old Testament studies at Concordia Theological Union in Chicago, pointed out that “resurrection story” is misnomer, since the four Gospels describe only his reappearances and finding an empty tomb, but “empty tomb proves nothing. The body could have been stolen.” The Emmaus story in Luke suggests that the testimony of the women who found the tomb was discounted because they were women — “but that’s another workshop,” Bergant said, to rueful laughter.
“We know an awful lot of theology, but we don’t understand resurrection. It’s not resuscitation,” she continued. “It’s the essence of our faith. Jesus was a good theologian and a good teacher. He re-interpreted the Mosaic tradition.”
By a modern hospital bed, Bergant said, a patient who asks, “What have I done to deserve this?” may require a new interpretation of tradition. Some people who can’t or won’t do that work give up on the church, finding that change is coming too fast, or not fast enough. But, she said, “Anyone involved in ministry is a practical theologian, interpreting the tradition for people’s lives.”
“To those to whom we minister, we are the church,” Bergant said. “I am a weak, flawed human being, but look what God has done in me and through me. … (Patients) are not asking for medical answers. It’s not about a cure. All you can give is healing, so they can face the future.”
When we need advice, Bergant said, we seek it from those with wisdom, not just knowledge. “Wisdom is what you learn from life,” she said, and it often comes the hard way. “We all work with human beings. They can be very disappointing,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Religious highs, such as the ones the disciples experienced, feel good and serve a purpose. “But how long does a religious high last?” Bergant asked. “Don’t expect it to last long, because you’ll be out of commission if it does.”
What comes next? “Welcome to the real world. Welcome to death,” she said. “Jesus was a failure in this world,” in the eyes of his followers, redeeming his reputation only by rising from the dead. Everyone seeks success — but that, and failure, are also subject to re-interpretation.
Conference has begun!
“Hearts on Fire: Our Own Emmaus Journey” officially began Friday under cold, rainy skies in the desert north of Albuquerque. Nevertheless, arriving chaplains got a good look at rolling desert scenery and mountains on the horizon at Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa.
The narrow, winding road to the hotel resembled the average chaplain’s journey through life, said Fr. Richard Bartoszek, BCC, the liturgy chair of the conference task force, in the homily for the opening prayer service. Thinking back over the people who guided him on his path to chaplaincy, he said, “Every one of us here has those people in our lives and journeys, who helped us see who we are.”
Looking at the altar cloth decorated with the names of hundreds of deceased NACC members, he said, “These people on here are part of our story and our journey. They make us realize how blessed we are by God. God sent us the very best.”
And as NACC members pay it forward, Bartoszek concluded, “You are sent to staff, boards, people at bedsides. You take away pain and let them know God loves them. And God sends you to be the best to them.”
Collaboration in action
Bob Barnes saw collaboration in action in 2015 when the chaplaincy cognate groups worked to revise the Common Standards of 2005. In the current issue of Vision, he describes how the new set of Common Qualifications and Competencies grew out of five groups pulling in the same direction.
Putting egos aside in collaboration
When representatives of four associations revised the writing guide for certification applicants, the first step was to get past egos and agendas. The process worked, and the result has been well-received. Mary Davis writes about the collaboration in the current issue of Vision.
Extending our reach with Catholic partners
Collaboration with United States bishops and other Catholic organizations is built into the NACC’s strategic plan. In the current issue of Vision, Executive Director David Lichter describes some of the many initiatives we have taken to extend the healing ministry of Jesus.
Welcome to the NACC blog!
To provide our members with more timely conference coverage in the May-June issue of Vision, we are experimenting this year with a new NACC blog. Vision editor David Lewellen will post several articles about the conference at this address before members have caught their flights out of Albuquerque, and more coverage will follow during the following week as you settle back into your daily routines. And in weeks and months to come, we plan to continue using this newest way to stay in touch with our members and friends.