Spiritual Rainbow Coalition Ministers to Patients' Needs:

UCLA student chaplains reflect the city's religious diversity

by Mary Rourke - LA Times, March 3, 2002

How 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 commit.

"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 Baptist minister.

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 talked about.

"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.