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Touching Lives: The Voices of Two Chaplains (June 6, 2012)
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 06, 2012).
The experience of supporting LBGT patients and families is in some ways universal for all chaplains, and in some ways differs for those of us who also self-identify as LGBT. Some of the questions that go through our minds are the same, but the answers may be different. Other questions may be different. Here are the voices of two chaplains – one lesbian and one straight – at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an acute care institution.
Katy asks: As we go through the CPE process, one of the topics of discussion is self-revelation in our encounters with patients. How much do we tell about ourselves? When do we say something personal? How do we answer personal questions?
In the case of a chaplain with an LGBT sexual orientation, the question holds a special level of acuity. Identifying our sexual orientation could, with some patients, suddenly change the tone of the visit and make it impossible to provide quality spiritual care. But there is another side to this question, as well, which came home to me after a series of visits with a gay couple.
The patients were newborn twins, born to a surrogate mother here in the United States. The parents-to-be were gay Israelis, part of a community with a large population of children under the age of three, the result of the booming use of surrogate mothers outside the country. An unexpected early delivery brought these tiny babies into the Newborn ICU while the two new dads were still on a plane flying across the Atlantic.
I became involved with the parents after a referral from the NICU chaplain. The babies were far enough along that there was little worry about their ability to survive, and the two new dads were like kids in a candy shop, filled with smiles and delight and sheer joy. After more than a decade of being together, they were incredibly happy to have children. I immediately loved them both.
The love and joy the two men expressed spread to anyone who came into contact with them, including this Jewish chaplain. One of the dads enjoyed speaking Hebrew with me. Both were delighted when I said a traditional prayer of healing for the babies in Hebrew. Both expressed genuine pleasure at seeing me each time I returned.
These two men had a tenuous connection with a liberal synagogue in Israel, of which there are a small but slowly growing number as secular Israelis in search of a spiritual life seek out a place of comfort religiously. Here in the United States, where liberal Judaism is more firmly entrenched, these two new dads received the unexpected added dimension of comfortable spiritual care, in addition to the first-rate medical care the babies were receiving.
On my last visit only one of the fathers was present. He was preparing to take the second baby, who was about to be discharged, to their hotel. At the end of our time together, as I turned away, I saw a tear slip from the father’s eye. I was so glad that I had never told them that my life partner is of the same sex! I was so glad that they just knew the rabbi as someone who welcomed them as human beings and fathers and Jews and treated them with love and caring without asking questions, and with no other agenda than to provide the best possible spiritual and religious care. I was so glad I had just provided spiritual care, and not a personal agenda.
Before leaving the country, the grateful new parents presented the NICU team with a framed thank-you and pictures of themselves and the babies: “Thank you for taking care of us, helping us to accomplish our development. Now that we are mature, healthy, and strong enough for life, we are ready to go home to Israel.”
These babies received first-class care, and so did their dads.
Vera asks additional questions: How does a straight chaplain best serve LGBT patients? When is it appropriate to ask about or acknowledge sexual orientation?
At 6 A.M., on my pre-op rounds, I was asked to see a patient whose anxiety level was leading her to try to rip her IV’s out of her arms. She was terrified of going into the OR. I introduced myself to her and to the woman who accompanied her. She described her faith tradition as pagan and I could see her watching carefully for my reaction. I told her I was a Unitarian Universalist and that nature was central to my own spirituality. She was delighted to find that the hospital had a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, and it distracted her from tearing out her IV’s--at least temporarily. When the anesthesiologist arrived, her anxiety increased dramatically again. When he left, I felt as though we were back to square one.
During the initial part of the visit I had a growing sense that they were more than friends and debated whether to acknowledge their relationship. What if I was wrong? How would my question be received? For whose benefit would I be asking the question? A multitude of questions went through my mind. Finally, I let go of the debate in my head, trusted my intuition, and took a risk that changed everything. I simply asked how long they had been together. It turned out that they had been one of the first same gender couples legally married in Massachusetts and had been married by a Unitarian Universalist minister. She needed to have this surgery so they could go on their honeymoon in Europe. Hiking together in Europe was a dream they had shared for a long time. Her anxiety had led her to cancel the surgery and the honeymoon once already. As they spoke about their relationship, and as I named the love I saw between them, she relaxed and reconnected with her wife and the reasons to go ahead with this surgery. I offered a blessing for healing and in celebration of their relationship and she proceeded to have the surgery.
When I dropped by after the surgery to check in on her, she told me how shocked she was that the hospital was so supportive of both her paganism and her marriage. I told her what a privilege it had been to meet them, to hear their story, and to be their chaplain that morning.
On another occasion, I had the privilege of performing a wedding ceremony for two young women in our chapel. One was the daughter of a patient who was awaiting a heart transplant. The efforts of the staff at the hospital to make this wedding special for this family made me so proud to work at the Brigham. Most often the weddings at which we officiate are for seriously ill or dying patients. It was a great joy to marry these two young women who had met in college, had been devoted to each other for several years, and had life not death immediately ahead of them. They had cancelled a large wedding in another state that they had been planning for over a year because it was more important to them that our patient be there than to have a big wedding. As patient’s nurses heard about their plans, the wedding went from a simple ceremony in the patient’s room to a service in the chapel with medical staff to support the patient, flowers, and a photographer. A lovely reception attended by the wedding guests, and hospital staff followed back on the patient’s floor.
While there have been many same sex weddings at the Brigham, this was the first such wedding in our chapel and it was featured in our in-house publications and there were video clips on our internal website. I lost count of how many people contacted me because they heard or read about the wedding. I am pleased to report that 100% of the people who contacted me were delighted that the hospital had supported these young women and this patient on such a special day.
Katy and Vera conclude: We don’t always get it right. We have a long way to go in our efforts to honor the inherent worth and dignity of each and every patient and employee. But as Richard Gilbert says, at least sometimes we feel that “We meet on holy ground, for that place is holy where lives touch, love moves, hope stirs.” (Richard Gilbert, In the Holy Quiet of this Hour, Boston: Skinner House Books, p. 16.)
Rev. Vera O'Brien is a Staff Chaplain at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains and is a Unitarian Universalist Minister. She is an Affiliated Minister at the Arlington Street Church in Boston where she was ordained.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston where she is currently switching from a general medical floor to an oncology floor. She is a Board Certified Chaplain through the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. In her spare time she serves as the rabbi if Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, where she is building a Nature Chaplaincy program.