“Michael Gelfant’s worst call came just after 10 p.m. on a Friday in March of 2012. Gelfant, a Catholic priest at Blessed Trinity Parish in southern Queens, New York, put on his collar and black vestments, got in his car and drove toward the Bedford Avenue subway stop, cursing the traffic that was slowing him down. When he arrived, he saw a young man pinned from the stomach down by a train to the side of the platform, still alive but badly injured.
“A team of six firefighters was racing against time to extract the man, inflating stacks of heavy-duty airbags underneath the train in an attempt to push it on its side. As soon as it was lifted, the man would bleed out. Catching a glimpse of a rosary dangling from the man’s wrist, Gelfant took it upon himself to perform one of the Catholic last rites. As the man was being pulled from the tracks and loaded onto a stretcher, Gelfant, reciting a prayer, reached out and dabbed a drop of oil onto his hand.
“Days later, the man’s mother called Gelfant from her son’s wake in Queens. She had one question for the chaplain who was present just before her son took his last breaths: had he administered the last rite? Gelfant assured her that he had. “Okay. Then I can let him go now,” she told him.
…”“The needs of employees, companies are coming to realize, are much more holistic than vacation time and leave policies,” said Michael Skaggs, director of programs for Brandeis University’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, which studies their role in public life. “Employees don’t leave their spiritual and religious needs at the door.”
“In the United States, chaplains are stationed with universities, airports, and even the Department of Justice, which provides funding for them to assist local police departments in responding to crime, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks. After 9/11, chaplains from around the tri-state area responded to Ground Zero and counseled first responders. The federal government employs as many as 6,000 chaplains in the military, federal prisons, and the Veterans Administration, and healthcare organizations, including an estimated two-thirds of hospitals, account for another 10,000.
… “More recently, private companies have found chaplains provide workers with an important outlet. The decline of churches in America—6,000 to 10,000 close each year—makes accessing services harder for those who still want to, placing more of the burden of spiritual counseling on chaplains in secular institutions. David Miller, a Princeton professor who studies faith and work, told The Atlantic in 2016 that workplace chaplaincies can potentially “create lower turnover rates, increased levels of focus, and reduction in stress-related illnesses.”
“The United Auto Workers, a labor union founded in Detroit in 1935, started a pilot chaplaincy initiative at one chapter in Flint, Michigan in 1985. Now more than 600 locals, working in conjunction with Employee Assistance Programs, provide chaplain services. They offer help to workers struggling with a range of problems that may or may not be related to the job, said Yvonne Cash, a chaplain based in the UAW region that includes Detroit. Cash counsels workers who experience family deaths, struggles with substance abuse, and other health problems; she and other chaplains also attend funerals for members and their families, and have even joined striking union members on the picket lines.
“Over the last few decades, chaplaincy has become increasingly secularized and professionalized, focusing more on general “spiritual health.” They “give a human touch to a difficult and fraught moment,” says Skaggs—serving as a universal presence that doesn’t aim to evangelize or convert. Chaplains in the U.S. follow religions as diverse as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca. But perhaps the biggest indicator of chaplaincy’s centrality to the spiritual needs of America is the arrival of humanist chaplains, who don’t believe in a higher power or deity, but instead aspire to contribute to “humanity’s greater good.”
“We live in a time of existential crisis, as a result of both environmental changes and political and technological changes,” Sullivan said. “And the phenomenon of the proliferation of chaplains is partly a response to pain and to suffering on a huge scale.”
… “Organizations employing chaplains stress that they are only one part of a holistic health and wellness approach, like offering gym discounts or other mental health services. But some employees won’t avail themselves of therapy services because of lingering stigma, as well as a fear that they won’t get promoted if their supervisors know they’re having mental health problems.
“Talking to a chaplain carries no such weight. The informality can lead people to open up when they otherwise wouldn’t. Gelfant counseled one worker who was having marital problems and turned to abusing drugs and alcohol, nearly losing his job before a co-worker told him to go talk to a chaplain.”…”The U.S. military uses a concept called “spiritual fitness”—which encompasses personal faith, foundational values and moral living, however this is defined by the individual—to encourage holistic health and wellbeing. Major insurance carriers, including Aetna, Cigna, and Anthem, all offer plans that include coverage of spiritual care, which proponents argue is a form of preventative care that helps reduce stress and drive down healthcare costs in the long term.”The idea that intangible problems like stress or spiritual crises could even have an effect on the physical body is fairly new, as awareness of a mind-body connection grew only gradually throughout the 20th century. But although research is still ongoing, spirituality is increasingly recognized as having tangible impacts on both physical and mental health. In 2001, researchers measured anxiety levels among patients admitted to the hospital with lung disease and discovered that those who received daily chaplain visits were significantly less anxious upon discharge, and spiritual distress has been linked to worse health outcomes among heart surgery patients. Recent research has even shown that religious and spiritual interventions can benefit mental health patients who are already receiving professional mental health care.
“Ultimately, Fraser said, chaplains form part of a holistic approach to healthcare—one that recognizes religious and spiritual beliefs as an enduring part of modern life. A chaplain might be able to address a spiritual crisis better than a medical professional, according to Fraser, or could fulfill a religious role when it’s most needed—helping a grieving mother, for example, come to terms with the loss of her son to a subway train.
“If you need therapy, you’ve gotta go to a therapist,” Fraser said. “But if you’re having a ‘dark night of the soul’ and want to talk to somebody who spends time worrying about those issues, you go to a chaplain.”