On the radio today I heard a segment about a chapel in a mental hospital being changed to a multi-faith worship place. The link there has the headline as “Chaplain “horrified” by hospital church closure” which is actually incorrect as the article states that St Ann’s psychiatric hospital in Dorset is simply changing their chapel to a not-specifically Christian place of worship. They are, however, moving specifically Christian adornments from the room, to be placed elsewhere. As the story goes I don’t see a problem – the chapel I worshipped in in hospital was not specifically Christian and I didn’t even think about that until I saw this story. Who really cares if the place you worship in has a cross in it? I would say it is the people that you meet and your experience of God that is important not the trappings on the wall. And I also agree that members of other faiths should be able to worship their God in a hospital as well, and I do not think a hospital should prioritise one faith over another. However, this story set me thinking about things I have seen:
I have had experience of a hospital chaplaincy (and chapel) in a mental hospital, and I found it very valuable. In the hospital I was in the chaplaincy was run by the Baptists, and the chaplain used to visit us on the ward very regularly. A service was held on a Monday night, which was very well attended, and that was run by a local Baptist minister – whose church also welcomed those of us who would like to visit, and indeed I ended up joining that church for several years until I moved house.
I found the experience very useful. At the time I went into hospital (this has been my only admission) I was not particularly focussed on God, although I was still a believer. It simply had not occurred to me to think about God as I became more and more depressed, and my faith was not as much a part of my life then – well or ill – as it is now. Shortly after arriving into hospital, I met the chaplain. I thought – and still think – he had an excellent way of getting people to talk to him and be a bit more open to the idea of talking to a Christian chaplain (the majority of patients were Muslim), which was to have pockets full of cigarettes to hand out to all and sundry, expecting nothing in return! As the majority of patients were smokers (including myself) and as no-one had much money, it was really appreciated.
I think this particular chaplain worked well because he was such an ordinary man. I don’t mean that to be insulting in any way. He was a big guy with a working-class accent who quite obviously understood and came from the same sort of background as the people in the hospital. He knew – and was neither shocked nor embarrassed – about drugs, gangs, violence etc. As a result, all sorts of people talked to him, not always about God at all, but just used him as a non-medical but informed party, someone they could complain to and so on, which had a definite use in the hospital setting. He would, of course, talk about God and Jesus, but in a very down-to-earth sort of way, rather than the airy-fairy everything-is-fine sort of way that you tend to find in books.
The service was excellent. Very simple, just sitting round in a circle, a few readings, prayers, songs, once we had communion from an Anglican minister, but usually we were led by a Baptist minister. I remember it as being very calm, and very accepting – as you would hope a church would that was in a mental hospital. I remember a few weird behaviours by people, but it was no big deal to the minister or anyone else. That is what I really took out of there, a sense of love, peace and acceptance. They were not pushy at all, which is probably why so many Muslim patients went too – just to get out of the ward or for other reasons, but they knew that there would be no aggressive attempts to convert them. I looked forward to the Mondays, a change of scene and a chance to feel like I was sitting with friends, not a patient with strangers and medical staff around me. I can’t remember the particulars of the services, but I do remember that I felt welcome. I would love to see more churches being mental health friendly, to extend a welcome to and love for people who behave oddly, to those who are suffering mentally. And I am sure many do this, but I would like to see it shouted from the rooftops really!
The hospital itself was the most God-friendly place I have ever been in. Everyone was talking about God, Jesus, the Bible, Muslims and Christians were discussing (in a friendly way) their religions, people were reading the Bible and the Quran all over the place, it was amazing. I got back into reading the Bible there – the chaplain gave me a Gideons NT and I later bought myself a Bible on one of my trips out (and ended up buying one for someone else even though I did not intend to!) I read a little of the Quran as well. I have never had those sorts of conversations with people, with my friends or with strangers before, I think it is because we were all so vulnerable, and so distressed really, that we were conscious of needing help and for most of us, help from God was at least as looked-for as help from medical people. We also I think needed someone “on our side” – particularly when some patients felt that the medical staff didn’t understand them properly and failed to take their needs into account.
What I would like to do more than anything really is to be a mental hospital chaplain. I wouldn’t really know where to start but I just thought what the Baptist people did in my hospital was so useful, and such a help to me in a dark place that I would like to give something back. I am exploring the option at the moment.
I was wondering, to those of you who are reading this, what is your experience of hospital chaplaincy and faith in an inpatient setting?