Tales of a UU Chaplain

by Amy Wright Glenn

I watch a circle of my peers, hospital chaplains-in-training like myself, gather.

We arrive on time to find ourselves in a small conference room. The chairs are arranged in a circle. While the bland bureaucracy of windowless hospital décor surrounds us, we stand at the precipice of a rigorous and multifaceted 9-month training. So much can and will happen to each one of us along the way.

“Please, sit down,” our supervisor began. “Let’s go around and having each one of you introduce yourselves.”

Upon enrolling in this level-one-trauma, hospital-based Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, I anticipated the experience would be transformative. Yes, I would be challenged, powerfully. I also knew that I would stand out. For I’m not in seminary. I’m not completing a CPE unit as part of formal preparation to lead a religious congregation. Unique amongst my peers, I am already engaged in my vocational calling. I am a teacher of comparative religion and philosophy and I am the only Unitarian Universalist (UU) in the mix.

Since the UU community is rather small overall (around 800,000 worldwide) it doesn’t strike me as strange that I am “the only UU.” I’m proud of my chosen heritage. The work of a hospital chaplain is deep, difficult, real ~ and my pluralistic, intellectually rigorous, curious, progressive, and life affirming will sustain me through the upcoming program. So, being the only UU doesn’t phase me. However, I am unprepared for how deeply transformative this experience will be ~ how could I have fully prepared for this?

Over the next few months, many questions fill my mind, heart, and soul. I wonder about the man I watch die who had traumatized his family so terribly that only one brother showed up for his passing and he didn’t even want to touch him. What of the elderly woman who fell off of her porch one Sunday afternoon while watering roses? I am with her and her grieving family as she dies in the ER, her mouth full of bright red blood. Sometimes I found myself holding young parents as they say goodbye to lifeless little babies, their hearts breaking open like chasms tearing apart the earth.

What of the Greek woman who was hit by a van while crossing a street on her way to have coffee with her mom? Twelve hours later part of her skull is temporarily moved to her stomach. This is an emergency medical procedure to treat those with severe head injuries perfected on the battlefields of Iraq. Because the woman’s brain was swelling, it needed room. And one can’t simply take part of the skull out, removing it from the living body will ensure the tissue will die. By putting part of her skull bone in her stomach, the bone tissue stays alive. It isn’t registered by the system as foreign and can be put back in place after her brain swelling goes down. Brilliant but gruesome. Her story haunts me. What if I’m suddenly hit by a car and part of my skull ends up in my stomach?

I have dear UU friends and mentors who hold space for me over the course of my training as a hospital chaplain and, gratefully, my CPE community is a warm hearted one. It includes two Jewish rabbis acting in supervisory roles, affiliated Muslim imams who visit patients, Catholic priests who make regular hospital rounds, and a Protestant Christians from many denominations. Most of my fellow students are completing the CPE unit as a required element of their future life in ministry. Future Presbyterians, Baptists, and evangelical Korean Protestants ministers make up the bulk of my peers. We are each assigned a direct supervisor. I consider myself very lucky as I am assigned to the only Quaker in the group.

In addition to individual meetings with our supervisors, we gather as a group once a week for 5-hours. We process our on-call work, tell stories, receive vital feedback, to try to make sense of what we are experiencing. Specialists from different floors of the hospital (Emergency, Oncology etc.) also visit to teach us. While at times we will witness to joyful encounters, the majority of our work entails being compassionately present and supportive for people through life’s traumas, hence the many didactics on grief and the stages of dying. We devote an hour each week to our IPR sessions (interpersonal relations sessions), a hybrid of group therapy and pastoral training.

As hospital chaplains-in-training, are told that until we deal with our own grief, life traumas, and individual fears around death, we won’t actually “see” the patients we encounter. Our undigested life experiences will make us vulnerable to walking into the hospital room of an elderly woman, for example, only to project fears/memories of our grandmother dying. Unless we do the hard and honest work of personal integration, we are at risk for being unconsciously triggered by the projections of the difficult chapters in our own life story and personal fears of mortality. Family of origin behavioral patterns can hinder us from doing the work of holding open, loving, non-judgmental space, so we spend a lot of time being brave in IPR.

Our supervisors emphasize that we are not to focus on “healing people” but rather we are called to encounter each person with humility and compassion. Our conventional understanding of “healing,” is too often confused with “curing.” Given that we are called to be with the dying, a focus on curing makes little sense. Death is a part of life, forever twinned with birth. We are tasked with holding open a loving heart in the pain, not sweeping away difficulty with prayer and superficial spiritualism. And we can only hold an open heart for others to the extent that we were able to do this for ourselves.

As a yoga teacher, this approach makes sense to me. The many hours spent consciously breathing while working with a challenging posture, softening around anxiety or fear, exploring dreams, dance, body work, massage, energy etc. ~ yes, such an integrated approach makes sense to me.

As hospital chaplains-in-training, we are asked move away from the use of interpretative responses when speaking with patients and families. We strive to use understanding responses. For example: “This is all part of God’s plan” or “Everything happens for a reason” is highly interpretative. It implies an attitude of superiority. I will teach you. I will impart my wisdom. With such statements, a chaplain is interpreting not only your situation for you, but faith writ large. Interpretative responses projects the chaplain onto center stage.

Our CPE supervisor referred to this as a stereotypically “masculine” (“I can fix this.”) approach to encountering difficulty.

One day, one of my male peers started to walk into this territory, and our superviser’s heartfelt and dramatic fist hits the table. In a loud baritone voice, he shouts: “You need to be Feminine! Be feminine!” The irony of his gesture brings both shock and suppressed smiles from the group of future religious leaders who strive so hard to “do the right thing” and “help people” ~ which would arguably include a prohibition against yelling. But he made his point. Be feminine. Be softer. Listen more.

From day one, I came to admire my supervisor’s unorthodox, but nearly always insightful, teachings tremendously. I truly feel honored to spend 9 months in a close supervisory relationship with him. He teaches us to:

Just hold space.

Acknowledge what was said.

Enter into the pain. Don’t try to fix it.

The patient is the focus. Not the chaplain’s faith.

At first, a few of my peers want to end their prayers with patients “In the name of Jesus Christ.” As they explain their rationale, I join the more liberal Christian and Jewish chaplains as we collectively shifted uncomfortably in our chairs. Given their prayerful proclivities, our supervisor sternly reminds us that hospital chaplaincy isn’t the place for evangelism. The hospital isn’t a place to preach the tenets of any one faith over another, or conclude a prayer in the name of one tradition over another, unless it is requested by the patient or family directly. He reminds us that we are called to embody the spirit of mercy, compassion, justice ~ qualities present in all faith traditions and secular humanism. Given this, we are trained to let the patient take the lead. Indeed, some patients don’t want to pray at all. And that is just fine.

Simply to sit vigil next to a person.

A hand on the arm.

A listening heart.

That is enough.

As I walk through the halls of the hospital, I wonder about my own understandings of all of this. I practice mindful breathing to stay emotionally centered and open in difficult places. I hold the hands of families after suicides I see my first murdered body while a CPE student. I place my hands on the man’s chest near where the bullets had entered and pray.

Often the words of Carolyn McDade’s beloved song “Spirit of Life,” a staple in the UU community comes to my mind.

I sing:

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Despite the many heartaches and difficulty that I bear witness to, I am grateful for work. I see components of my identity (UU, yoga teacher, birth/death doula, and scholar of comparative religion/philosophy) mingle and merge together. For example, being present in prayer with a man full of trepidation pre-surgery allows me to source the calm found in my yoga practice in unprecedented ways.

I am also grateful for opportunities to share knowledge with peers about faiths outside of the Jewish-Christian continuum. In particular, I am grateful to be an advocate for the Muslim patients I encountered.

One afternoon, a middle-aged Egyptian woman comes into the trauma bay following a terrible car accident. The staff can’t get her to calm down. They threaten to sedate her so they can stabilize her spine. They are worried she hurt her neck. She is so scared. She moves and cries out in Arabic. She is alone; no family or friends are with her. I watch this situation and my intuition moves me to act.

“May I go into the trauma bay?” I ask the attending physician. This is an odd request as chaplains usually don’t enter the room when the patient is initially being stabilized. “I think I can help.”

“Of course, Chaplain,” he replies.

I enter the busy ER room. At least a dozen staff surround me. There’s so much noise. Machines beeping. The woman is crying.

“You’ve got to stay still,” a nurse admonishes her, frustrated.

I kneel by her side. I place my face close to hers and whisper gently in her ear.

Allah u Akbar.

Allah u Akbar.

Allah u Akbar.

Allah u Akbar.

God is greater.

Immediately, she calms down. She closes her eyes. Tears fall like rain down her cheeks. I hold her hand. Allah u Akbar. I repeat this for another minute. It works. She is stabilized.

Later, I find myself repeating this prayer in Arabic over and over for much of the day.

I know. I know. Very few, if any, UUs walk around saying “Allah u Akbar.” But as a Unitarian Universalist, I affirm the essence of this prayer. Something, some wondrous mystery, call it God or Goddess or Spirit, is Greater. UUs traditionally have embraced many names for this mystery as evidenced by our hymns: “Bring Many Names” and “Mother Spirit, Father Spirit.” Unbounded by a creed-based tradition, we strive to use skillful means and pluralistic language to help end human suffering. We are a community committed to inquiry, self awareness, mindfulness, and social justice. These root values sustain me in chaplaincy training.

Whenever I arrived for my on-call shifts, I search the hospital database to see if there were any Mormons who had been admitted. The list is usually very small and often non-existent. But I want to be sure to visit members of the church of my youth. The language and symbols of the LDS faith are coded into my earliest memories of prayer and fasting, of ritual and community. I know them well. I can communicate in this system to support, nurture, and serve this community that supported, nurtured, and served me as a girl.

I also visit members of my liberal religious community. I search for Unitarian Universalists, too. Like with the Mormons, most often, I don’t find any on record. But occasionally, the hospital database will print up a few names and accompanying room numbers. I sing “Spirit of Life” silently to myself as the elevator brings me to their floor. I look forward to communicating with UU patients and love being able to affirm our expansive theological framework while ascertaining the needs and concerns of my fellow UUs.

Muslim Imams visiting volunteers take their lists and make rounds. Modern Orthodox Jewish women in their long skirts take their lists and Catholics with their Eucharistic offerings visit, too ~ list in hand. As a chaplain, I visit everyone. But when it was slow, I take the time with my special Mormon and UU lists and make extra rounds.

Sometimes when I get down and the world seems too dismal for my hope to kindle easily, I remember that twenty-four hours a day, 365 days of the year, there’s a chaplain on call, doing rounds in hospitals all over the world. A solitary figure walks the halls visiting those in need. I imagine all of these good-hearted people with lists moving throughout the hospital bringing prayers yes, but mostly presence. They are doing this work right now, as I type these words.

In fact, every moment in every day, people in all walks of life step out of the confines of narrow self interest to pursue greater ideals that include the well being of both self and other. Mystical traditions affirm that there comes a point where even that distinction of self and other is transcended into a greater vision of unity.

And sometimes, when I am lucky, my chaplain’s heart opens wide enough to the let in the transformative vision of this unity The words just come. A deep kindness move through me. There is Grace. Beauty. Wholeness. Patterns of significance. Silence. A power I can barely understand moves through leaving me with breath and body transformed, more daring to be alive than before.

Yes, through my journey as a UU chaplain, through these difficult encounters with death, I became more aware of the gift of life.