Chaplaincy is a deep expression of Unitarian Universalist theology.
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City full-force last spring, National Guard units were called up to assist the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in collecting the dead from homes, nursing homes, and the streets. When the 109th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard, based in Scotia, New York, was called up in April, the Rev. Julie Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister who has served as a chaplain there for six years, received leave from her role as senior director of contextual ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago to provide pastoral support to the guardsmen in their difficult work.
“It was a hard mission,” says Taylor, who spent five weeks accompanying the guardsmen as they collected and transported the dead to the medical examiner. “The things we were seeing and exposed to, the emotional impact of being in a stranger’s home with the family there grieving, was hard.” Yet Taylor—echoing other UU chaplains who are doing pandemic-related work—found the experience a deep expression of her theology.
“One of the things I witnessed over and over again was soldiers and airmen having the deepest respect and care with the work they did,” she says. “Some people died and it was a while before they were able to be recovered, maybe they didn’t have anyone in their life and no one checked on them.” Without exception, she says, the unit treated the deceased with respect and their loved ones with kindness. “Those airmen and soldiers were able to be the arms that held that person that one last time—with care, with dignity, and with respect,” says Taylor, who served as a chaplain on site at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. “I’m incredibly proud of the work I witnessed.”
UU chaplains are working in a variety of settings during the pandemic. For the Rev. Jami Yandle, a hospice chaplain in South Carolina, the pandemic has further highlighted glaring racial disparities in healthcare and health outcomes. As the crisis grew, Yandle was reassigned to work exclusively with people dying from the virus and was often the only one at the dying person’s side. Though the hospice company has relaxed regulations—a single family member can now be with their loved one at their final moments—the experience remains intense, including for Yandle, for whom the pandemic is a powerful example of systemic racism.
Yandle, who is nonbinary, worries especially about people on the margins. “We know that people who are not white are dying disproportionately of COVID because the healthcare system is set up as it is. So with hospice, we have more people of color [with COVID-19], who haven’t gotten care the way they should have. It’s like the healthcare industry already failed you, and now you have COVID and it’s accelerated in your body. It’s just awful.” Much of Yandle’s pastoral work is with families heartbroken they can’t be with their loved ones as they die, and despite the potential danger from contact with others, ministry comes first, Yandle says. “If someone is collapsing in grief in my arms, as a UU who in good faith believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I cannot say no to that. If it happens, I don’t refuse it,” says Yandle, who, so far, is COVID-free.
The Rev. Erica Rose Long is a UU chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her work changed dramatically as the pandemic arrived, including that as stress increased for nurses, doctors, and other hospital workers, they asked for more spiritual support. Long started a weekly talk and meditation group that attracts from five to twenty participants each week and created serenity rooms where hospital workers can stop for a few moments of peace.
“A big part of my theology as a UU is the transformative power of love, and in this moment of crisis I’ve seen people show up in love in ways I’ve found really powerful,” Long says. “They’re already doing so much and yet I see nurses saying, ‘I want to donate my iPad so a family member can be on Facetime to pray with you.’” The outside world is also expressing love, “whether it’s people sending food or cards or prayers, or honking their horns and clapping for healthcare workers when we leave work.” She adds, “For me to be able to witness that is really powerful.”
Ali Jablonsky is interfaith chaplain and interim director of spiritual care at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. In the midst of the pandemic, Jablonsky, a 2017 Harvard Divinity School graduate, met with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) and received preliminary fellowship. “In my interview I said that chaplaincy has never felt so important as it does now,” says Jablonsky. “As UUs, the holy took so many forms in this time. All my colleagues—nurses and techs and doctors and environmental workers—were my chaplaincy colleagues in this, and we work so hard to be beloved community to each other and our patients.”
The Rev. David Pyle, the UUA’s regional lead and a Congregational Life consultant with the MidAmerica regional staff, serves as U.S. Army Reserve hospital chaplain for the 865th Combat Support Hospital. When the COVID crisis hit, Pyle, who lives in Kentucky, was activated to Utica, New York, to provide pastoral care and training for healthcare workers in his unit who were called up from their civilian jobs in order to deploy to hospitals in New York City and Philadelphia. For two weeks this spring, Pyle taught classes on bioethics and counseled his unit on issues of moral injury, “circumstances where you’re required to do something or something happens to you that is a deep challenge to your own personal values and beliefs,” he explains.
While military healthcare providers are familiar with the concept of triage in combat situations overseas, in a civilian setting in the United States, the challenges are different. “What do we do if we don’t have enough respirators or how do we tell a family they don’t get a say in the decision about their loved one’s medical care because it’s being made on the basis of resource allocation? I was there to help doctors and nurses and medics prepare for doing medical care in those very difficult environments,” says Pyle. While resources didn’t become as scarce as they’d worried, “if we do deploy again, I want to be with my soldiers, representing our faith’s values when my medical providers have to make those difficult decisions.”
For the Rev. Mr. Barb Greve, a hospice chaplain in San Jose, California, the pandemic hit at an especially challenging time. While caring for a caseload of seventy patients at a time, and their families, Greve, who was appointed as UUA co-moderator along with Elandria Williams in 2017, was preparing for General Assembly 2020. As the pandemic worsened, the stress of hospice and hospital workers increased and Greve also tended to their needs, including helping manage their fears.
“UU folks were turning to me, chaplains and ministers wondering if they would have to shut down [live worship services] and asking whether GA was going to happen or not,” says Greve, who went before the MFC via Zoom in March for his preliminary fellowship interview. “It all hit at the same time.” Recently Greve’s peers in the hospice company recognized his extraordinary efforts with an award as best chaplain.
Greve has two asks of UUs during the pandemic: to wear masks, and to express thanks to hospital and nursing home workers with cards or other means, since they are exhausted and saddened by the “gut-wrenching” things they witness daily: “It really does make a difference.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.