‘I learned that compassion starts with me’

September 11, 2012
From The Tidings, published by The Archdiocese of Los Angeles

The six graduates of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) intensive summer program came forth one at a time in the back of St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care, which had been sectioned off from the small church by long hanging curtains.

The three men and three women, who came from different faith traditions, were being recognized last month for finishing 400 hours of study, personal examination and pastoral care in a clinical setting at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center and other local hospitals.

Now it was time to reflect on their experiences during the 10-week program. Each carried a candle of a different color and shape that, when lit, represented the light of God that had brought them through the eye-opening, rigorous and hands-on experience of being a hospital chaplain. The candles also represented the light they were now going to carry out into the world in working with the sick and dying as well as other related ministries.

Non-denominational Alicia Grey said when she started CPE she really didn’t know what to expect. She called the 10 weeks a “discernment journey” to see if God was calling her to be a chaplain. “And I found that being a chaplain was a lot different and more complicated and more challenging and more stressful than I thought it would be.

“But I found that I enjoyed being a chaplain,” she added. “I loved the visits, and I found that I loved being with people in their darkest moments and their time of need, and walking alongside of them to be that listening ear and to be that encouragement. And to be that vessel of healing as well.

“And I clung to the hope that God was with me, because you never know what you’re going to expect when you go through a patient’s door. But there were many times that my hope faded, and times that I really was struggling spiritually and emotionally. But I have to give God thanks for helping me through it and for all the things that he taught me.”

All of the student chaplains gave their reflections beside a large screen collage of snap-shot photos relating to their particular CPE summer experience. Many, like Nathaniel Allen, an Evangelical Lutheran, thanked their families and friends for supporting them through the grueling eight-hours-a-day, 400-total-hours intensive program. Allen admitted that while working mostly in pediatric units, he started worrying constantly about his own daughter being in some terrible accident or coming down with a deadly disease.

“There’s so many different things that can go wrong about something happening to my daughter,” he pointed out. “But I’ve been able to let that go in many ways and to live and respect each moment that I have with my family and just to be very careful with the time that I have. And to live every moment as if it might be the last.”

Allen thanked the Reverend Rambhoru Brinkmann, supervisor of the program; Father Chris Ponnet, pastor of St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care and chaplain at LAC/USC Medical Center; and, especially, all the mentor chaplains “who have been there for us and taught us so many things during our time here.

“The most important thing that this experience has taught me is to live humbly in this world,” he stressed. “Because we never know when it might be our chance to make some incredible experience and live for God. So it taught me to live humbly and to live in awe of this creation that is so joyous and sad at the same time.”

Another graduate, United Methodist Helena Titus, said the clinically based CPE taught her that it was OK to not have every moment of her day planned and to be more spontaneous. “I also learned that caregivers needed to be cared for, too,” she said. “The other thing I learned was that compassion starts with me.”

Urban chaplaincy
When Father Ponnet became pastor of St. Camillus and chaplain at LAC/USC Medical Center 18 years ago, it quickly became clear to him that he needed to be trained to make sure he was “doing things appropriately and professionally and interfaith-wise.”

So he went to Arcadia Methodist Hospital and became part of their Clinical Pastoral Education program. It took him a year to go through all four 400-hour units and become board certified through the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education.

Clinical Pastoral Education is an interfaith professional education for ministry, which brings together students and ministers of all faiths into supervised encounters with the sick and dying as well as their families. The 1600-hour training, broken down into four units, involves theological reflection, personal formation, study of behavioral sciences and a deepening of pastoral skills.

Working with the national groups, the energetic Father Ponnet next created an urban chaplaincy school, where people in various educational programs can do all of their clinical hours here, with St. Camillus helping to fund a supervisor plus the training of a chaplain. To date, some 120 students have gone through CPE at the little church amidst the sprawling healthcare complex of hospitals, clinics and the University of Southern California’s medical school.

“I think this very interfaith program of training chaplains, which is supervised by a Hindu individual and a Spanish-language Presbyterian, is kind of a unique gift to the archdiocese, which will hopefully outlive me,” observed Father Ponnet. “It’s one of only about five places in the United States where people can do their clinical work.

“Most of these people have either been in a seminary or are currently attending one or working on their master’s degree. And we have graduates now all over at different hospitals, detox and hospice centers, and other places. And people of any faith can come, even though we’re hosted by St. Camillus and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.”

Different group dynamics
At the graduation ceremony in mid-August, Garian (Wally) Burman, Daughter of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul Sister Cecilia Nguyen, Helena Titus, Nathaniel Allen, Cesar Magallón and Alicia Grey received certificates, signifying they had successfully completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. For Sister Nguyen, however, this was her fourth and final unit.

Their supervisor during the demanding 10-week summer training praised the group for bonding and becoming a real community.
“This is my seventh group unit of CPE at St. Camillus, and I’m always amazed that each group is entirely different from another,” the Reverend Rambhoru Brinkmann told the graduates. “Their dynamics are different. What was new for me was this was the first and only group that’s been made up wholly of introverts. But you developed into a very intimate and cohesive and loving group of peers.”

The Hindu clergywoman said the goal of CPE is to help students integrate the theology they’ve learned in various seminaries with real life experiences through close contacts with patients and the practical application of helping them during a time of suffering and crisis. But it also had to do with encountering their own anxieties.

“You’ve heard a lot of the students talk about having to face death in the crematory and in the coroner’s office, how moving those moments were,” she noted. “The major part of students’ learning is to be able to confront their fears — their fear of dying, their fear of death, as they have to meet death almost on a daily basis in the hospital.”

Sister Nguyen told The Tidings that witnessing the “whole process” at the Los Angeles County crematory really did affect her — from a body being placed in a box, to being moved inside an oven, to the ashes being collected some four hours later. She even surprised herself by going back a second time to L.A.’s Evergreen Cemetery to observe the procedure once again.

“It was painful to see a human being reduced to ashes,” she recalled.

“Nobody claimed the body, and that made me feel really compassionate. But to go through my fear, my pain so I can be helpful to somebody was good.”

Sister Nguyen said finishing the four units in a single year was indeed challenging, especially writing papers on theology, critical incidents and personal reflections in her second language, English. The 42-year-old woman religious came to Orange County with her family when she was 24. Before feeling called to the Daughters of Charity, she was a member of the Lovers of the Holy Cross Vietnamese sisters for 13 years.

“I feel wonderful right now,” said the beaming CPE graduate, who plans to take two weeks off before maybe starting online courses to earn a master’s degree in theology. “It’s a meaningful job for me to be able to be by a patient and their family when they’re dying or sick. I went to the ER [Emergency Room] and ICU [Intensive Care Unit] and family and mental units, and pediatrics. I just wanted to experience it all.”

‘Big time’ help
Cesar Magallón admitted that part of the reason he went through the Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer was because it was a requirement of his course of studies at St. John’s Seminary. But the fourth-year seminarian said CPE helped him “big time” explore his inner feelings about sickness and, especially, the whole dying process.

“I think it’s going to really affect my ministry in many ways,” he said. “It has allowed me to open up in different ways in my own life, which you have to do before you can help others. Also, it did remind me that we have this life that’s God-given and it’s so beautiful, and we take most things for granted. When I saw somebody who’s dying, it helped me to appreciate my own life, to put things into perspective when I go into a parish and see all these groups and people.”

Specifically, Magallón said the summer chaplaincy program will help him be more understanding and compassionate when he has to make sick calls to hospitals, retirement centers and homes.

“They say that sometimes priests or ministers become ‘sacrament dispensers’,” he explained with a chuckle. “Coming to visit a patient is not really about that or just doing a prayer. It’s really about finding out how the sick person is really doing, finding out about their feelings and emotions.

“And to do that you really have to go deep and deep and deep,” stressed the 35-year-seminarian from St. Gertrude in Bell Gardens. “So this CPE experience has offered me the tools to do that. And so, I think I’ll be a better minister, a better priest coming to the hospital for sick calls for people who are dying and comforting their family. I think they’ll be more comfortable with me, with the hospital environment, and with dying and dead people in general.”