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Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson

Sermons Podcasts

Chaplain Stories

July 5, 2009

Karla Brockie with introduction by Carolyn Saunders

Karla Brockie, student minister at UUCNWT, works as a chaplain at TMC Hospice and  she will share stories from her practice, exploring what it means to be a UU professional providing spiritual care in a multifaith setting.

© Karla Brockie, Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry


Chaplain Stories, A Sermon by Karla Brockie, Student Minister
Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson; July 5, 2009

Chaplaincy.  What does that even mean?  I stand before you as a student of Unitarian Universalist ministry, and also as a lay chaplain at TMC Hospice.  I’d like to share with you a little of the transformations I have suffered and enjoyed along this path, and the insight I have gained.

As part of my theological education for the ministry, I was required to take one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, popularly known as CPE.  My dear friend and colleague, and your Director of Lifespan Faith Development, Lisa McDaniel-Hutchings, is taking sabbatical this fall in order to do CPE.  From the website of the Association of CPE;

The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. (ACPE) is a professional association committed to advancing experience-based theological education for seminarians, clergy and lay persons of diverse cultures, ethnic groups and faith traditions. ACPE establishes standards, certifies supervisors and accredits centers to provide programs of clinical pastoral education (CPE) in varied settings. ACPE approved programs promote the integration of personal history, faith tradition and the behavioral sciences in the practice of spiritual care. 

On the home page (http://www.acpe.edu/index.html), they describe themselves as a multicultural, multifaith organization.  It is this aspect that I want to attend to now.

One unit of CPE consists of 100 hours of class and supervision time, and 300 hours of clinical work.  Full time, it takes 3 months.  I did my two units part time, commuting to Phoenix to Banner Good Samaritan Hospital, over the course of 6 months each time (there is no ACPE center in Tucson).  We had class once a week on Monday evenings from 5 to 10pm.  In my first unit, I stayed 2 or 3 days with a member of the Phoenix congregation and put in my clinical hours at Good Sam.  In my second unit, I was working as chaplain in Tucson, and allowed to log in my clinical hours there, along with two 12-hour on-call shifts at Good Sam per month.  Typically on those days, I would drive to Phoenix on Sunday evening, do on-call 8pm to 8am, then sleep in the chaplain’s on-call room until time for class Monday evening, then drive home.  No matter how it is done, just the logistics of CPE are intense!  For many ministry students, a hospital setting is new and scary, but as an occupational therapist of 30 years, I feel right at home.  For some, the intense, deep sharing of the classes is a new experience.  This too, I have experience with in different ways.  The challenge for me was… (duh duh duh dummmm…) working with Christians.

Okay, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, open minded and radically inclusive, right?  But I confronted my arrogance and disdain for those of Christian faith, not altogether unknown amongst us.  It surprised me!  My supervisor was a Lutheran minister, albeit an “out” lesbian and maintaining her ordination through the LGBT “Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries”, since the other Lutheran synods will not ordain her.  The other students in my class were a Lutheran minister who grew up in the mid-west, a Lutheran minister who grew up in Mexico, a Catholic priest who grew up in Uganda, and a Catholic layperson who also practiced spiritual healing informed by new-age spirituality, who grew up in Arizona.  The other staff and student chaplains were all Christian, except one minister from the Church of Science of the Mind.  We were quite the multicultural group, and with ACPE encouraging an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment, we came to understand ourselves and one another more deeply.  You can imagine my classmates’ curiosity about me as bisexual person, and Unitarian Universalism, and I found it was the latter I had the hardest time explaining.  I got better, bit by bit. 

One meaningful incident for me was early on, when one who I had already come to respect deeply and whose pastoral skills I admired and wished to emulate, shared her conversion experience.  As a child she had suffered deep psychological wounds, and though attending church, as a teenager she had come to have serious doubts about her faith.  She described finding herself spiritually at the bottom of a deep dark pit, alone and with no way out.  Then in that hopeless place, a vision of the crucified Christ came to her, accompanying her in her despair, and transforming it to love, and light, and compassion.  This is what has informed her ministry, and I found I had to let go of my notion that belief in visions and in Jesus are just delusional and childish…  Because of this and of my experience of others, I have been able to embrace Jesus as one embodiment of radical love and compassion, and as a companion to suffering.  Not my companion, but a companion embraced by many.

We had to prepare worship services for the hospital.  When it was my turn, I was unable to schedule myself for the monthly interfaith memorial service, so I had to do a Sunday morning Christian service.  I found an instrumental CD of classical harp music and obtained permission to use it for Good Sam worship.  I made ‘beauty as healing’ my theme’, and used readings from our hymnal; the Navajo one that begins “Beauty is before me,” and the ancient Celtic one that begins, “Deep peace of the running wave to you.”  I put in a guided imagery meditation.  Then I submitted it to the class; before we actually provide any worship service, we go over it in class together.  I was so nervous!  To my surprise, they all LOVED it.  I was so relieved!  Then they said, it is lovely, but it is definitely not Christian!  This is supposed to be a Christian service!  My bad.  And an incredible discussion ensued.  If we are supposed to be respectful of religious diversity, should I, as a non-Christian, be required to write and perform a Christian service?  In fact, by the second unit, I had had my UU History class, with a deeper grasp of our Christian roots, and was able to create a Christian service that also honored my integrity.  My fun came when the supervisor called the Hispanic Lutheran minister on assigning the male gender to God; we are required to use inclusive language.  He was initially completely perplexed by this request, and again, we had the most amazing discussion, and my UU values came in quite handy. 

In class and in supervision we had a covenant similar to our covenant of right relations.  We used our experiences with patients, and our relationships with one another, to increase our pastoral skills, to raise our awareness and understanding of our gifts and our painful spots, and we came to claim our identities as ministers and chaplains.  The promise to be honest and direct, and to stay connected in conflict, brought us through amazing transformations in our understanding of ourselves, in our deepening compassion for ourselves and for others, and in our identities as ministers.  The covenant enabled us to develop a loving learning community where risks could be taken; we could bring our embarrassment, our rage, our confusion to light, and light our way forward in healing.  Because of this covenantal community, CPE for me, as for many of my colleagues, is the place where the deepest ministerial formation took place. 
Here is the Wikipedia definition of chaplain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaplain

A chaplain is typically a priest, pastor, ordained deacon, rabbi, imam or other member of the clergy serving a group of people who are not organized as a mission or church, or who are unable to attend church for various reasons; such as health, confinement, or military or civil duties; lay chaplains are also found in other settings such as universities.

Often in health care settings, the chaplains are expected to serve the spiritual needs of the diverse population of patients, regardless of the individual chaplain’s denomination.  There are denomination-specific chaplains too; at TMC there is a Catholic priest who sees only Catholic patients (although I may also see them), and the Jewish community in Tucson has hired 2 part-time Jewish chaplains who only see Jewish patients, (though again, I may also see them).  CPE prepares us to take a patient-centered approach, taking our lead from the patient and their faith tradition, and incorporating their scripture, rituals, and traditions that have meaning for them.  I am engaged in an ongoing process of discernment about integrity in my own theology, and honoring the theology and traditions of my patients.  My CPE colleagues have encouraged me not to try to “be Christian,” or anticipate what the needs are of my Christian patients, but to bring my own authentic presence and to ask what is needed.

Spiritual care is difficult to define, but it does not depend on religion.  In some ways it can be seen as emotional or psychological care, but it is more than that.  When we encounter deep experiences where ultimate meaning is found, or lost, we may need assistance, or someone to truly be with us in our pain or joy, without necessarily trying to do anything about it.  Let me tell you some stories…

Early in my training, every single experience with a patient or family was humbling.  Totally.  (In fact, they still are, but often in an affirming rather than painful way.)  In one memorable experience, I met a woman from the San Carlos Apache reservation who had asked for a chaplain; she had attended a Protestant Christian church in the past, and asked for prayers.  We had a long conversation where she poured out her pain born of several tragedies, including the death of her cousin that week, and a pedestrian-meets-truck accident which had killed her brother a few years ago.   She asked for a Bible, so I left her to go the office to get one to give her.  On the way I felt a deep need to help her, and had no real idea how to do that.  I felt I wanted to establish credibility with her, all of this coming out of my insecurity as a student chaplain and as a non-Christian, and out of my unresolved issues from having lived in San Carlos years ago and having struggled with the racial and cultural tensions there as a representative of the dominant, oppressive society…  Upon my return, I piped up that I had lived in San Carlos, and named the best friend I had made there in an attempt to connect.  “He’s the one who ran over my brother!!”…  So much for pastoral presence and rapport, and serving the needs of the patient rather than my own.

There was the 17-year-old woman, 20 weeks pregnant with a baby in trouble, getting ready to go to surgery.  She was terrified, but my efforts to be present for her did not get through; she was texting on her cell phone the whole time I spoke and prayed with her, and then as she was wheeled out the door away from me she began screaming and wailing in fear to her mother on the phone…

There was the Phoenix policeman who was brought to the trauma room with gunshot wounds, and died.  I was the chaplain on call that day, but detained with another patient with emergency needs at the time of the call.  Another chaplain went to the emergency room, and when free, I reported to the conference where police were gathering to do vigil for their colleague.  That day, the police chaplains did most of the front line ministry, but I and other Good Sam chaplains remained present for the literally hundreds of police and firemen gathering in mourning for this tragedy.  I found myself at a loss for how to minister to strangers in the wake of such a thing, and knew I must seek further deepening of myself to meet that level of sorrow.  That night, I found out that the victim was a member of the UU Church of Phoenix.  The pastoral care for that family continued through the following weeks from the church.

There are stories of connection, comfort, and redemption as well.  I had the privilege of performing a wedding for a hospice patient and her partner of many years, both evangelical Christians.  In planning the wedding, the groom-to-be asked me if I was saved, and I had to say, “Well, from your perspective, probably not!”  We had a great theological discussion, able to honor one another’s different perspectives on the holy, and that couple was delighted to have me preside at their ceremony in their mobile home, with nurse and social worker as witness and the dog, decorated with a bow, as attendant. 

Often it doesn’t even come up, but if patients ask me if I am a Christian, I say no, but I am a chaplain, there to serve the spiritual needs of those of all faiths.  Most of the time, I am accepted, and if not, I do not take it personally. 

One hospice patient was a 30-something Catholic Native American mom with a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old son.  The father was not connected with the family.  She was devout, and her local priest visited her at home for the sacraments, but she wanted me to visit her too.  Her hospital bed was in the living room of her sister’s house, where when I visited, her 7-year-old nephew was always playing Wii on the big-screen TV, and family flowed through all day long.  I had lots of great chaplain-ideas, like making a scrap book of memories for her boys, but she was not ready to really consider that she was going to die.  One week she began to go downhill rapidly.  I called to offer a visit, and she told me that the boys were finally asking questions about the possibility of her death, and she wanted to save her energy for a family meeting that night; she asked me to come the next day.  The next morning, I was called to come to the house as she was going downhill rapidly, and then she died.  When I arrived, I was able to be present to a large, grief-stricken family gathered around the deathbed, to say a blessing to honor this young woman, to lead prayers, both traditional (I have finally memorized the Lord’s Prayer, King James version!) and extemporaneous.  I was inspired to invite those gathered to say words of farewell, and to speak of fond memories.  Laughter was intermixed with tears.  I put my hand on the shoulders of the boys…

I have 2 favorite books right now.  Kate Braestrup is a UU minister serving as chaplain of the Maine Fish and Game Department, and she has written a book of stories about that, called Here if You Need Me.  She is a great storyteller, and if you can get hold of the audio version, she is the one who reads, beautifully.  Forrest Church is the UU minister at All Souls Church in New York City, and his book Love and Death was written in response to a terminal cancer diagnosis last year.   Both speak eloquently of those poignant moments when the human condition stops us in our tracks, which ironically frees us from distractions and brings our attention to our full human-ness.  To be with one another in love and compassion, to be and not do, this is a great gift.

I have lots of stories to tell, but as I heard a minister preach recently, you can’t take it all in one go (and he said, “I ought to know by now when to stop!”).  Here are some moments that illustrate the sacred work of chaplaincy for me…

Holding a newborn, unbelievably small, and gently squirmy, with a squinty face, after saying a blessing of welcome for her and her parents and grandparents.  Standing by a teenage mother and her just born baby, certain to die in minutes because of congenital anomalies, as she held her and moved from certainty that “she’s here to stay” to unimaginable loss.  Talking with a beautiful 80-year-old woman full of life and joy in her dying, in a beautiful house filled with her paintings, about the visions of angels she’s having. Singing her a song of thanksgiving that makes us both cry, and at her memorial service, telling her funny story of a pet cockatoo that made everyone laugh.  Hanging out beside the bed of a wrestling icon, now completely incapacitated by progressive disease, saying prayers of the rosary together and then singing Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer Do, together, both out of tune and full of fun.  Another time giving his shocked and disgruntled wife some sex education about the involuntary nature of erections.  Sitting in the chapel with a nurse who, having taken a breath in the stillness and beauty of meditation and my companionship, began to weep from exhaustion and relief.  Listening to a nurse’s aide on the inpatient unit speak of “knowing” when people are about to die, and witnessing the exit of their souls.  Performing blessing of the hands for the hospice staff, tenderly offering acknowledgement of their sacred work.  Having heard from a daughter across the ocean, finding the opera CD’s and putting one on for a woman with end-stage dementia, and seeing her face blossom into a smile for the first time.  Holding hands.

Please take the hands of those beside you briefly, and transmit a little of your warmth to them.  This is the beloved community.  Thank you.

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