Beauty in Ashes: Hospital Chaplaincy in a COVID-19 World, Part 2
By David Neidert
“Normal feels like a dissonant word. We are not even using it about how we will adapt after this crisis.” Chaplain Amity Rees knows that discord as she daily works with nearly twenty colleagues in her role with Ascension Health, Michigan.
Rees is the regional spiritual care manager for the health system in northeastern Michigan. Her chaplain colleagues spend their days with patients in hospitals hard hit by COVID-19. She daily debriefs remotely with local teams providing updates and offering emotional support. Chaplains on the ground under her supervision across fourteen hospitals often find Rees’s listening ear critical when hitting “an emotional wall.”
Rees, a Michigan native, returned home after developing her career in hospital chaplaincy. Ordained in the Church of God, she completed her MDiv at the Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministries before taking assignments in chaplaincy with Ascension in Anderson and Evansville, Indiana, before returning to the Wolverine State. Rees also served as a volunteer chaplain while completing graduate studies at the Anderson Christian Center, a facility for homeless men.
Her graduate training and work in clinical pastoral education prepared her for these less-than-normal times. “I became aware of the dynamics of poverty, strained relationships, mental health challenges, health compromises, racial disparities, and more,” reflects Rees. “I learned that in times of vulnerability, these dynamics feel even more threatening. COVID-19 has compounded these emotional stressors ,” she observes.
Vulnerability is a keyword for Rees these days, especially as Detroit hospitals reached a point where almost the entire patient population was COVID infected. “Our chaplains had to perform all their care through telephones, baby monitors, tablets, and other devices,” recalls Rees. One chaplain shared with her, “all day long, I’m escorting the one visitor allowed to the bedside of a dying patient, and we both know that we are walking for the last time this person will ever see their loved one. And I’m doing it over and over and over. What makes it even worse, I can’t even hug or hold their hand.” Chaplains, doctors, and nurses are vulnerable to the fatigue of overwork and fear. “We are constantly considering how we care for our colleagues as they escort a co-worker to the morgue who has succumbed to the virus. What can we do to bring the Light of Christ into this moment,” grieves Rees.
Rees does not take her assignment lightly. “I realize the gravity of how I am leading and working with others,” she confides. As chaplains, “we have been called upon to create practices of reverence, holy space, in honoring the dead when we need to house their bodies in temporary resting spaces. We have been called upon to create words that help staff speak honor over those they have tried to save and lost.” Rees personally believes she has been “called upon to hold my chaplains in their fears with no way to fix it. I am humbled, rewarded, and challenged to be used of God ‘for such a time as this.’”
This ministry responsibility requires Rees to practice continual self-compassion. “Sometimes, I am just emotionally exhausted,” she shares. “So, I intentionally reach out to people through video or telephone calls for connection. This protects me from the depression that can set in with working only through a video monitor in isolation.” In vulnerability she continues, “I need to allow myself to cry, lament, and grieve. The Lord holds me and my chaplain team in this moment. I continually pray for them and the situation. At times, I pause and sing a prayer over my people. It is very cathartic.”
In the midst of so much hurt, Rees rejoices that “God always shows up.” She shares, “I personally experience God when I cry and kick against a scary or uncertain future, when I feel like I am going to fall apart. It’s there grace abounds. I have seen God move in beautiful, tiny ways, in big ways, in unexpected ways. Our chaplain team across the state gathers virtually for one-half hour regularly to share what we call ‘Moments of Grace.’ The conversation is life-giving for everyone. It is there we pause and remember that God is here with us and that there is beauty in the ashes.”
Editor’s note—This concludes Part 2 of a two-part feature on chaplaincy in a COVID-19 world. If you missed Part 1, be sure to read it here.
David Neidert, born and raised in the Church of God, serves as a contributing writer and editor for Church of God Ministries. He worked at Anderson University for thirty-eight years and served the Historical Society of the Church of God as editor for one year. His published works include curriculum, numerous articles, and two books.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.