Mourning a death. Coping with grief. Healing the heartsick and soothing the sufferers. For much of human history, people addressed loss and trauma through rituals drawn from faith traditions, performed in spaces we called sacred — churches, temples, shrines, mosques — and led by ministers and rabbis, imams and priests. But in New England, where the influence of Puritan piety has yielded to unceremonious secularism, something more malleable is emerging. To meet spiritual needs when and where they arise, we’re turning to chaplains, people trained to work outside the structure of religious institutions. As church attendance nationally also declines, “the need for chaplains will only increase,” says Shelly Rambo, an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology.
The rise of chaplains isn’t necessarily a Christian trend, or even a religious one. The term is being adopted by other faith traditions, says Preeta Banerjee, Hindu adviser in the University Chaplaincy at Tufts University. Her role exists because there is now a need for “chaplaincy for different faiths” she says, as well as for people who don’t belong to a religion, often dubbed the nones. Indeed, the new breed of chaplains is distinctly ecumenical — ministers for the “spiritual, but not religious” set.
And while chaplains serve in all kinds of institutional spaces, from military bases to college campuses, these days you’re most likely to encounter one in a hospital, like Boston Medical Center. (They typically are paid by the institutions where they work.) It was there that a transgender patient who was transitioning and had been abandoned by her family sat with Martin Mugerwa, a chaplain in training at BU School of Theology. Mugerwa listened to her story and affirmed her. “You are not alone,” he told her. “You are loved.”
Mugerwa could not have imagined speaking those words as a 13-year-old in his native Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and transgender people often are considered gay. Back then, he wanted to become a Catholic priest, but as he grew older, Mugerwa felt a call to minister to a variety of faiths. “Being a chaplain, you are open to different faith traditions, even to nonbelievers, and what you focus on most is the spirituality of the person rather than the religion and what they believe in,” he says. Mugerwa, who will graduate with a master’s of divinity degree this spring, says that moment with the transgender patient confirmed his calling. “I saw her smiling and crying, full of joy that she has someone who understands her and is able to affirm and accompany her,” he recalls. He closes his eyes for a moment. “It was incredible.”
Inclusive experiences like that are becoming more common as chaplains move to the forefront of spiritual care. “They see a different way to heal the world than their parents or grandparents did, and it’s not based in religious organizations,” says Wendy Cadge, a sociologist at Brandeis University and founder of the school’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, which studies the profession and provides educational resources to chaplains. Cadge says that because chaplains meet people where they are and in the moments when they are most in need of spiritual care and guidance, they fit better in a country where people are increasingly “allergic to organized religion.”
Divinity schools are experiencing a surge in interest in chaplain training — while enrollment in master of divinity programs dropped 14 percent between 2006 and 2016, chaplaincy programs are on the rise. There are more than 300 schools in the United States and Canada that offer graduate theological degrees, and Cadge has found that about a quarter of them offer a specialized chaplaincy program, most of which were started in just the past two decades. BU launched its chaplaincy track in 2014, and it tripled in size between 2018 and 2019, from six students to 19. Rambo says students interested in being chaplains aren’t sure if they want to work in churches. They worry that the church might not accept them, or that it might feel too rigid. Many of her students have “been wounded by religious institutions, but they’re also deeply formed by them,” she says. They want to respond to pain and “they want religion to be a healing agent in the world.” But they don’t want to be the religious leaders that hurt them.
Some of them have shifted away from the explicitly religious language most ministers are grounded in, says the Rev. Mary Martha Thiel. Thiel is director of clinical pastoral education at Hebrew SeniorLife, an important training ground for divinity students interested in becoming chaplains. “Not all chaplains are going to identify themselves as religious,” she says. Instead, they will have what she calls a “meaning tradition.”
For Steven Salido Fisher, a third-year student at Harvard Divinity School, that meaning tradition is Catholicism, but Fisher, who is gay, never considered becoming a priest. He was inspired to become a chaplain while working for the Red Cross through AmeriCorps’ Disaster Services Unit in Alaska. As his team responded to earthquakes, fires, and winter storms, he saw hospital chaplains, fire department chaplains, and state trooper chaplains at work, and was amazed at the presence that they brought to a disaster scene. “They could talk to a survivor of a fire, for example, and make them laugh and ask questions that were at the heart of what they were experiencing. I wanted to do that.”
As part of Fisher’s training, he worked at Massachusetts General Hospital. On his first overnight shift, in the summer of 2019, Fisher ministered to a woman in her 90s who told him she was ready to die, a teenager with a rare disease who would not make it through the night, and the parents of a stillborn baby. The parents asked Fisher to say a prayer and bless the child with holy water. After that, he went to the elevator and cried. But, he also felt a kind of awe at sitting with patients and their loved ones “just for a moment to make meaning of what was going on.”
More than 1 in 5 Americans had contact with a chaplain between 2017 and 2019, according to a survey conducted by Cadge and her colleagues, and 57 percent did so in a health care setting. Ylisse Bess, an interfaith chaplain at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says her job often involves “hallway encounters” — check-ins with doctors and nurses, security guards and food service employees. “Before I even get to a patient’s room,” says Bess, “I could visit five or six people.” One of her regulars is Laura Dasilva, an intensive care unit coordinator. After her father died unexpectedly from a stroke in December 2019, Dasilva met Bess in the hallway of the ICU. “I was super stressed and going through a lot with my family,” Dasilva recalls. “I needed someone to listen to me, and [Bess] was that person.”
Dasilva, who is originally from Cape Verde, is a devout Catholic but she feels comfortable talking to Bess, a Protestant, about her faith. “She respects everybody’s beliefs,” Dasilva says. “We talk about what she believes, what I believe, and we have common senses about religion.”
Bess says engaging when she’s needed lets hospital staff “process their shifts and talk about the transcendent and their meaning-making practice.” She facilitates that processing however the individual sees fit. “Sometimes that’s God,” she says, “and sometimes that’s gardening.”
Finding the divine in difficult moments was what inspired Yulia Kazakova to pursue becoming a chaplain. Now a staff chaplain at Boston Children’s Hospital, she recalls working an overnight shift at Mass. General when she was called to the room of a dying man whose mother sat by his bed. She held hands with both of them as the man breathed his last, and in that room felt she found “the embodiment of what it means to be not alone in suffering.”
Leaders of faith communities, of course, also visit people in hospital rooms or at home. But chaplains have to create community on the fly. Nora Messier, who directs a Beverly group home for adults with developmental disabilities, some years ago sought out chaplains from the Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers after two residents passed away in quick succession. The chaplains led a conversation in the facility’s living room about dealing with grief. Messier says it created a way for staff and residents “to connect with each other and share stories and get healing and closure.”
On a rainy Monday morning in March, a friar, a minister, and a chaplain meet at Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. They’re preparing to make their way around downtown Boston to serve homeless and unhoused people. The chaplain, Lisa Loughlin of Common Cathedral, a 25-year-old outdoor ministry, wears her clerical collar under a North Face fleece and carries a backpack stuffed with sandwiches, socks, winter hats and gloves, and extra face masks. The friar, Brother Paul Fesefeldt, a Capuchin, has his brown habit on under a blue raincoat with an Army surplus messenger bag slung across his shoulder. As they turn the corner onto Copley Square, Loughlin greets a man near Trinity Church, and asks if he needs anything. He replies that he does not and calls back, “Thank you, Chaplain Lisa!”
On the other side of the square, three men are sitting on a bench, passing the splinter of a joint back and forth. “I’m trying to stay downwind,” one says as the clergy approach. The minister, the Rev. Mary Jane Eaton, Common Cathedral’s pastor, knows him and starts a casual conversation.
One of the men notices the small bronze cross Loughlin wears around her neck and shows her the beaded bracelet he wears, with its own small wooden cross. He’s Catholic, he tells her. And then he opens up: He’s an alcoholic. “It’s a terrible disease,” Loughlin says, adding, “It sucks to be addicted.” Reaching around to her backpack, Loughlin asks if he needs anything, “sandwiches, socks, anything?” He says his mother is in the hospital and he’d like to call her. Loughlin hands him her iPhone. While he tries to call, the man sitting next to him asks for gloves. Loughlin digs through her backpacks, saying “I have blue and ... blue.” He takes a pair. His friend, handing back Loughlin’s phone — no one picked up — says he’ll take the other pair, and a gray winter hat, too.
Later that Monday morning, in Back Bay Station, Loughlin encounters another familiar face, Carlito Ortiz. He’s sitting on the base of the A. Philip Randolph statue and charging his phone from a portable battery. “I have a problem,” he says as soon as he sees Loughlin. “Can you help me out?” He needs housing — he’s broken up with his girlfriend and had to move out.
Loughlin knows the process and offers to take a picture of his paperwork so Common Cathedral’s staff can help him fill it out. While he looks for his papers, she fishes a bronze cross — identical to the one she wears — out of her backpack. Last time they met, he had said he liked hers. She hands him the cross and offers to pray with him. He takes off his hat while she prays, and when they say “Amen,” Ortiz makes the sign of the cross and hugs Loughlin. She reminds him of the church’s office address on Newbury Street and encourages him to come get help with his housing paperwork. “Our chaplains’ job is to think of the individual,” says Amanda Grant-Rose, Common Cathedral’s executive director. “They might ask, ‘Where is he in life? What does he need? How much time this week does he need to be seen, to be loved, to be cared for?’ " The chaplains relay needs they hear about to the rest of the staff to try to address.
“Most chaplains work in very high-crisis areas,” says BU’s Rambo. “They’re addressing these questions of meaning and purpose, particularly in relation to crisis points.” Chaplains have become a presence at protest movements, helping participants within groups like Black Lives Matter as they become interested in reconnecting to the religious and spiritual lineage of their movements. Hilary Allen, a Boston-based project consultant with Faith Matters Network, says people who engage in such movements are searching for meaning, healing, and help dealing with trauma. Chaplains can assist people in processing their stress and emotions, and sometimes they’re called upon to deescalate tensions at protests themselves. “Stuff goes down, mostly in a series of meetings where everybody is tired and at each other’s throats and somebody in the room is like, ‘We can’t do this by ourselves; we need outside help,’ " says Allen. That’s when a chaplain might be invited in to engage one-on-one with people and “tend to the situation,” she says. “That happens all the time, every issue, every organization, every geography.”
Movement chaplains weren’t the only chaplains paying attention to last summer’s racial justice protests. Army chaplain Captain Roger Gordon was uneasy about the conversation around deploying active-duty troops in response to the protests in Washington, so he organized and led moral leadership training sessions for his battalion, then stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. The training was mandatory and he estimates that around 150-200 soldiers attended over multiple sessions. “The use of active-duty troops on US soil is a moral issue,” says Gordon, who began serving as an Army chaplain in 2019, after graduating from the BU School of Theology.
Gordon’s unit is currently deployed in Kuwait. There, he sees soldiers who are struggling with post-traumatic stress and even with thoughts of suicide. “I try to help soldiers find hope when they may feel like they’re at the end of their rope,” he says. But he also helps them try to balance their professional and home lives. And while he is a Christian Scientist, Gordon’s job as a military chaplain is to provide spiritual care to soldiers, no matter their beliefs. “I try to understand where they’re coming from and support them in that place,” he says. “If chaplains can do that, [we] will help people in their search for truth, help people make meaning out of their lives, and help people newly engage with God.”
These chaplains see firsthand that even as church attendance erodes everywhere in the United States, people still want to engage with God and their spirituality, to find the community and social support that many people no longer feel they get from religious institutions of all faiths and denominations. “Spirituality is like sexuality,” says Cindy Cheshire, campus minister at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “Everyone has one, but it is expressed differently according to the person.”
This need for spirituality exists, Cheshire says, “whether [people] recognize themselves as religiously affiliated or not.” As a Catholic herself, Cheshire often talks with students who grew up Catholic, but are now estranged from the faith. “They are looking for someone to listen to their pain,” Cheshire says. “They had a bad experience, they had a bad upbringing, they had a bad understanding of what the divine is, and they need someone in somewhat of a position of authority to hear that, so they can move forward in healing.”
While there remain significant numbers of Americans drawn to organized religion, Cheryl Giles, a professor at Harvard Divinity Schools, says these pockets are shrinking as the population ages. The shift makes chaplaincy a “wonderful frontier” where a new generation of ministers is “using their skills to help people in other ways.” Her prediction? In the near future we will see the rise of “community chaplaincy,” where chaplains develop and lead small groups of people who gather to share poetry and sacred texts. If this seems familiar, it might be because it sounds a whole lot like the best part of what our parents and grandparents used to call church.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is an assistant professor of humanities at Regis College. Follow him on Twitter @jon_fitzgerald. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
IS NEW ENGLAND TURNING “POST_CHRISTIAN”?
The region is home to the five US cities with the lowest proportion of practicing Christians.
By Jakob Menendez
It’s been clear for years that belief in God among New Englanders as a group has diminished since Pilgrim times. In a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, four states saw less than half the respondents express certainty that God exists: Massachusetts (40 percent), Vermont (41 percent), New Hampshire (43 percent), and Maine (48 percent). Vermont had the highest number of people who identified as atheists, at just more than 1 in 5. In a 2017 Gallup Poll, Vermont respondents also had the lowest levels of religious belief, with a mere 16 percent of those surveyed saying they were “very religious.”
That’s not to say we’re home to Babylon the Great, the doomed city in the Book of Revelation. But the five US cities with the lowest proportion of practicing Christians are here, according to a 2019 study by Barna Group, which researches religion and culture. It asked residents of the top 100 Nielsen media markets 16 questions about Christian beliefs and behaviors, such as whether people had read the Bible or prayed in the previous week or had attended church in the past six months. Cities with high percentages of non-practitioners were dubbed “post-Christian.” Springfield topped the list at 66 percent, followed by Portland, Maine; Providence; Burlington, Vermont; and Boston. (Nielsen includes the cities and their surrounding areas.)
Data from the Public Religion Research Institute show that the center of American Catholicism has shifted south and west, fueled by immigration from Latin America (though according to its 2017 report, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country).
Still, when times are tough (i.e., we’re in a global pandemic), people look for succor. David Rosmarin, director of the McLean Hospital spirituality and mental health program in Belmont, said requests for spiritual care were up 100 percent in the first three months of the pandemic alone.