Last week, chaplains at the hospital where I work were informed that we were “essential personnel.” This felt like a hard-fought victory. In the context of an academic medical center, the religious, spiritual, and emotional needs of patients and families often take a back seat to the medical aspects of care and research. It would be an understatement to say that some of us on staff were feeling undervalued.
It never occurred to me that being a hospital chaplain could be dangerous.
But the victory of being deemed “essential” is mixed with apprehension under the conditions of pandemic. I’m wary. My spouse is quarantining at home as are many of my friends and colleagues. That seems like the responsible thing to do. In contrast, I will be going to work every day and spending hours in a place where people are seeking treatment for the virus that we’d all rather avoid. It never occurred to me that being a hospital chaplain could be dangerous, but that is now the situation.
And the situation has forced me to rethink my role in the hospital. Pre-pandemic, I thought that being a chaplain meant helping people in existential distress cope with their circumstances by engaging their religious traditions. Such engagement included some reinterpretation of traditions, which I have called rearranging the religious and spiritual furniture. Often we have the spiritual means to cope, but we need a little guidance and refocusing. In addition to being a mediator of religious traditions, my chaplaincy role also included basic things like being present, listening empathetically, and offering emotional support. I saw my role as helping patients and families navigate personal existential crises and disasters. Theologically, I considered myself to be “caring for the least of these” as an act of neighbor love. Intellectually and emotionally this work has been difficult, but it has very rarely been dangerous.
In contrast, pandemic chaplaincy feels dangerous. Nearly every day, there are new restrictions on which patients chaplains can visit; there’s a lack of masks, gowns, and gloves; there’s a constant flow of email updates on preparedness and worst case scenarios. No visitors are allowed in the hospital, and everyone who can is working from home, which has created an eerie silence on the floors. Simple actions that are nearly involuntary for a chaplain—like holding a patient’s hand during prayer—have become significant decisions to be made. Should I violate the rules of social distancing? Should I use gloves for patient support during this crisis? Yet more and more patients are longing for human connection and touch, and are reaching out their hands to me as their only visitor. And soon, I anticipate that patients will only have the voice of a chaplain on the other end of the phone as we create more physical distance to try to limit the spread of this virus. I worry that my voice will not offer enough care in these uniquely stressful times.
These new working conditions have prompted me to rethink the theological grounds of my chaplaincy. “Caring for the least of these” is still the kind of neighbor love that is called for, but what does that look like during a pandemic? With my embodied empathy sidelined for a while, I went back to Leviticus 19, where the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is given.
The earliest version of the neighbor love command is in a text that takes embodiment and sociality seriously.
Leviticus 19 reinterprets the 10 Commandments within a system that prioritizes ritual purity and a common social ethic. The earliest version of the neighbor love command is in a text that takes embodiment and sociality seriously. In the early parts of Leviticus, many of the ritual injunctions are about managing embodiment in the context of creating a holy community. A key question these early chapters consider: How should persons interact with one another when they are not in a state of ritual purity? Normal physical conditions, such as being ill or menstruating, require that persons maintain some distance from the community before being reintegrated. We could think of social distancing in a similar manner. To protect our communities from a rapidly spreading infection, we need to isolate ourselves for a short period of time. Importantly, these periods of isolation presumed reintegration into the community.
Additionally, Leviticus 19 offers components of a social ethic that don’t require interpersonal interaction. This mini ethics chapter enjoins us not to reap our entire harvest, but rather to leave some for the poor to gather in themselves. One need not physically hand food to the hungry in order to care for them. One can leave it anonymously, say at a distance of at least six feet, and still be helpful. We are also enjoined in this chapter to deal honestly with one another. This particular form of neighbor love can be practiced at the distance of social media! Ensuring that our communities have access to relevant and truthful information is a kind of neighbor love. Importantly, Leviticus 19 puts forward an inclusive ethic by including the stranger and by specifically pointing out that the care of those with physical impairments is required. Communities are to welcome the stranger and not make life more difficult for the blind and deaf, which I take to be a metonymy for other physical conditions as well.
Chaplaincy is essential in times of pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done in a responsible way.
Chaplaincy is essential in times of pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done in a responsible, social distancing way that nevertheless embodies love of neighbor. I can use technology to reach patients and families without being physically present. We can all be disembodied supporters of food banks and other social services by donating money and other resources from a safe distance. And we can demand honesty and the inclusion of all in our communities in any approach to alleviating suffering during this pandemic. And when social distancing is over, we can develop rituals for reintegrating our communities and coming together as a body again.