Mary Rourke - LA Times, March 3, 2002
does a Hindu talk to a Buddhist about life after death? How
can a Christian pray with a Muslim? Such questions define
the lives of students in UCLA Medical Center's Spiritual Care
Unit. Pills and diagnoses seem like cheery conversation starters
compared with the topics they handle.
Father Abraham Jacob, a Catholic priest in his early 50s,
was raised Hindu. He is one of 14 students in the hospital's
chaplaincy training program. On a recent day, his first visit
was with a 13-year-old girl who was asleep when he entered
her room. Her grandmother and aunt sat quietly beside her.
The instant intimacy of hospital conversations was evident
as the aunt explained that the girl cannot digest food and
needs surgery. "She has always been sickly," the aunt said.
"Are you Persian?" Jacob asked. He has Persian relatives.
"Any religion?" He mentioned that he is a Catholic priest.
"We are born Muslim, but we're not practicing," the aunt said.
"It's more a personal relationship with God."
Jacob offered to send a Muslim chaplain, but they did not
"Would you like to pray?" he asked.
"Go ahead," the aunt said. "It's all the same."
It was a brief prayer. "God bless you for taking care of God's
child," Jacob began. "God has given you a special child."
In the hallway afterward Jacob said he never knows what to
expect when he enters a patient's room. One Catholic woman
told him to go away. "She had some problems with the church,"
he recalled. "No hard feelings. I sent her another chaplain."
Sometimes he only stops in to tell a patient that chaplains
from every major faith are available if they want to see one.
The full-time staff includes a priest, a minister and a rabbi,
with Muslims and Buddhists on call. Fifteen years ago, when
the program was new, the full-time staff consisted of one
These days, religious diversity is redefining hospital chaplaincy
work. While the patient directory at UCLA is usually about
65% Christian, the number of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and
members of other religions continues to increase. Training
programs like UCLA's, which is officially called the Clinical
Pastoral Education Program, have been in place since the '50s.
Many of them were designed to prepare seminary students to
become part of a patient's treatment.
A Baptist minister named Janice Humphreys launched UCLA's
program in 1989. The first students were Christian seminarians,
but this year the group represents an array of the world's
religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Islam
as well as Judaism and Christianity.
A similar broadening has occurred in chaplaincy programs around
the country, but UCLA, as a reflection of its patients, is
ahead of most others.
Sandee Yarlott has been the program's director for about a
year. "Ten years ago there was a realization that the chaplaincy
program needed to diversify religiously, or at least culturally,"
said Yarlott, 52, who came to UCLA after developing chaplaincy
programs in Northern California. She recently recruited a
Muslim woman to the program after meeting her among the hospital
volunteers, and she is currently arranging to make presentations
to Buddhists and Muslims around the city. Jewish students
also have gone through the program.
More than 6,000 students are in chaplaincy training programs
around the country, according to the Assn. for Clinical Pastoral
Education in Decatur, Ga., the largest accrediting institution
in the country. No one goes into the field for the money.
Most graduates find jobs as full-time chaplains, earning around
$40,000 per year; Californians face a particular challenge
since most available jobs are in faraway places such as North
Dakota or Kentucky.
About 300 hospitals and related centers are certified to teach
chaplaincy by the association, the vast majority of them nonreligious
hospitals. Locally, UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles Childrens
Hospital and the Methodist Hospital of Southern California
in Arcadia offer programs. So does the Crystal Cathedral,
a Christian church in Garden Grove.
About half of the students in UCLA's training program are
seminarians or clergy, and despite the financial and geographic
limits of the profession, competition for enrollment in the
UCLA program is stiff. There were 14 applicants for the residency
program last fall; only four were accepted.
Good intentions won't get you very far in this field.
"Is it all right to read the five precepts of the religion
to a dying Buddhist?" one Catholic student asked Rev. Kusala,
a Buddhist monk who met with the group as part of a lecture
series on the world's major religions.
"No," Kusala said. "That would be like a Buddhist leading
a Christian who wanted to pray the Our Father." Buddhists
don't believe in God the Father.
"How should we pray with a Buddhist?" asked a Japanese Methodist
student who was raised in the Shinto religion, where she learned
that death leads to 33 hells, if not 33 heavens. "You don't
pray with a Buddhist," Kusala answered. "Buddhists don't worship
any god. There isn't anyone to petition. We try to help the
dying to remember all the good they have done in this life."
These somewhat abrupt awakenings have a ripple effect. "I
don't mention Jesus when I pray, unless I know the patient
is Christian," said Jacob. (Patients are not required to list
their religion on hospital forms.) If he does pray with a
patient, it is only about specific things the patient has
"The real work we do as chaplains is to listen," Yarlott said.
"For that, we have to watch how our own assumptions and values
impact situations." Religious sensitivities are only part
of what a chaplain has to be aware of. "A patient might say
they are going home soon," Yarlott explained. "We might answer,
'Good.' Maybe, but for an abused woman, maybe not. By assuming
things, we might shut down entire conversations."
Sedigheh Kunkel, a retired nurse in her 50s, entered the training
program in January. She speaks Persian and Arabic and enters
a hospital room saying "Salaam aleikum" if a patient's chart
shows that he or she is Muslim. "Peace be upon you," the Arabic
greeting, is Kunkel's way of saying that she is Muslim too.
An older woman with an inflamed knee saw Kunkel at the door
of her hospital room and smiled. Surrounded by valentine cards
and heart-shaped balloons, with her husband sitting in a chair
beside her bed, the patient seemed to want something more.
"You saw me yesterday. I had a broken heart," she reminded
Kunkel. Their conversation, a mix of Persian and English,
ended when the patient said, "I want you to pray for me."
Kunkel suggested they pray together in Persian.
A former nurse, Kunkel came to the chaplaincy program while
working as a volunteer translator helping Persian-speaking
patients. She found herself going beyond her immediate tasks
and listening to patients' stories.
"I was crying so often when I'd meet people who were dying,"
she said. "It's different in nursing. You are action oriented;
you don't think so much about how people feel." Kunkel went
to Yarlott for guidance. "I wondered if there was anything
I could do to stop crying and be more helpful," she recalled.
"Sandee suggested I apply for the chaplaincy program."
For his second visit with a frail 43-year-old man who had
been in isolation since December, Jacob put on the required
mask and gloves. The first time they met, the patient, a lapsed
Catholic, was cool toward Jacob. This time, through the oxygen
tube in his esophagus, he managed to say that his sister would
visit him the next day and that he was not as upset as he
had been. Jacob asked if he would like to pray, and the patient
nodded in agreement.
"What shall we pray?" Jacob asked.
"That I can go home," the man answered.