By Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, Visiting Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care
Long before 2020 arrived with its unprecedented changes, many Union graduates were already serving as health care, university, protest and prison chaplains. For over a decade Union has been partnering with Jewish Theological Seminary to provide excellent chaplaincy education through their Center for Pastoral Education. Now growing numbers of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and unaffiliated students are coming to Union with vocational dreams of becoming chaplains.
Recognizing this convergence, Union launched plans in the fall of 2019 to formalize its training for chaplaincy. “It’s been a long time in coming, and we’ve already had it de facto in place,” says Pamela Cooper-White, vice president for academic affairs and dean. “Only a few new courses were designed to round out a Chaplaincy concentration.”
Students now have a clear path to prepare for chaplaincy and meet the challenges of a rapidly and dramatically changing world. More than 20 new M.Div. students expressed an interest in the new concentration at orientation this fall. When Sara Gush, M.Div. ’20, started her final term of seminary in February, she was waiting for word on two applications to clinical pastoral education (CPE) residencies in North Carolina, interviewing just prior to the national shutdown.
Gush, who grew up in North Carolina, could have no idea that in less than six months she would need to don extreme personal protective gear for patient visits. Nor did she see herself using an iPad to connect families to their loved ones. Neither did she picture herself assigned to an intensive care unit (ICU) filled with patients dying of a virus that most Americans had not yet heard about.
But that was February.
By March, the COVID-19 pandemic was sweeping the globe and hitting the United States especially hard. The collective grief and ripple effect in our social fabric are
more than we can yet fully assess. Union was poised at precisely the right juncture to bring together chaplaincy training, inter-religious engagement skills, social justice commitments and compassionate rituals of care. “It is a real crisis and opportunity moment for Union to step up our preparation for chaplains,” says Cooper-White.
The Indispensability of Chaplains
As the pandemic immobilized much of the U.S., chaplains were becoming our new public heroes. They were firsthand witnesses to the unfolding devastating realities of COVID-19. They became the country’s lifeline to loved ones who were actively dying.
Chaplains continued to help people who were navigating unimaginable grief. Gush, who worked for a Unitarian Universalist congregation during seminary, has a sense of pastoral calm that suits her well for giving spiritual care to COVID-19 patients, families and medical staff at Duke University Medical Center. She says that even if you must use an iPad, “Getting someone to see their loved one for the first time and hearing them say ‘Oh my God you are still here!’ that is such a beauty and blessing. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now.”
Although she feels prepared for the work in many ways, Gush also finds herself asking urgent new questions: How are the rituals and practices of grief and death care changing to meet new realities? How will chaplains creatively connect sick and dying patients with their families? How do we care better for the staff in their grief? And how can we ritualize the losses in the space itself?
The Intersection Where Justice and Care Meet
Rev. Brenda D. Ford, M.Div. ’08, is both a campus chaplain for Stony Brook University and a spiritual care chaplain at a county correctional facility. The pandemic changed everything about her work. She shifted her pastoral care for students into offering a “virtual presence,” using platforms on her phone and computer.
Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, some of Ford’s students joined the uprising in the streets, and Ford inadvertently became a protest chaplain. When her students heard about a new death, they turned to her with hard questions: Am I next? What must we do? What systems are in place that are
continuing to keep African Americans down? Who is in leadership?
Jefre Cantu, M.Div. ’19 studied Buddhism and Interreligious Engagement at Union. In the summer of 2020 Cantu completed a chaplaincy residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. His story also bears witness to multiple devastating losses. He observed recently in an interview for Medium, “This is an existential
crisis that the whole world is going through.” The twin crises of the pandemic and police brutality amplify injustices that have long been present. Cantu says 2020 has helped him see “the ways that inequality is so shot through our social structures.” During his residency he witnessed firsthand how Latinx and Black patients were “dying in higher proportions because of systemic racism and income inequality” and a lack of access to health care.
Robust Skills and Urgent Questions
Greg Snyder is senior director and assistant professor of Buddhist Studies and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. He says, “By contextualizing the training in an environment that values social justice and insists upon interreligious engagement, chaplains are able to build a robust array of capacities that are critical to addressing the many pains of our nation in this moment.”
Jerusha Tanner Rhodes, associate professor of Islam and Interreligious Engagement, says, “What is unique and distinctive at Union is the widespread and experiential focus on interreligious engagement. That is a skill set chaplains need. And it is not just knowing something about other traditions, but knowing how to interact, how to learn from and with other traditions, and how to interrogate their power dynamics and histories.”
The new Chaplaincy concentration integrates two robust programs at Union, Psychology and Religions, and Interreligious Engagement. Senior Director and Associate
Professor of Integrative & Field-Based Education, Su Yon Pak, Ed.D. ’99, says chaplaincy as a field is in a transformation, and new spaces are opening for the work of
chaplains.The tension in these innovations, Pak says, is both to honor the work of spiritual care that is already happening, and at the same time to empower and educate people to do the work well. Union’s rich history of partnerships allows students to practice the work of healing, presence, grieving and living into questions and responses for social justice through excellent CPE and field education placements and supervision.
As Snyder says, “With so much to heal, now more than ever we need skilled chaplains working in all of our communities. It’s important that Union is taking this on.”