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Chaplains’ work: In the halls of medicine, politics and business

Chaplains’ work: In the halls of medicine, politics and business

Wendy Cadge, author of Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine and a sociology professor at Brandeis University, has written a piece in Religion & Politics responding to Martin Doblmeier’s 2015 documentary Chaplains: On the Front Lines of Faith, including a historical perspective on chaplains in D.C. government:

Many Americans know little about chaplains, perhaps recalling only Father John Mulcahy, the chaplain character who appeared on the 1970s show M*A*S*H. And yet, chaplains date to the earliest years of the American republic. In 1774 Jacob Duché, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was recruited to offer prayers before the First Continental Congress. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the U.S. Senate selected Samuel Proovost, an Episcopal bishop from New York, as chaplain in April 1789. The House elected William Linn, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, as its first chaplain in May 1789. Both Proovost and Linn received an annual salary of $500. After Congress moved to Washington, D.C., local clergy took turns leading prayers before permanent chaplaincies were institutionalized. Chaplains remain in Congress today where they hold full-time, strictly nonpartisan, and nonsectarian jobs. Each chaplain has a staff and is paid as a level IV executive federal employee: $158,700 in 2015. As profiled in Doblmeier’s film, Barry Black currently serves the Senate and Fr. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J, is chaplain to the House of Representatives. Each serves as a chaplain to all—from members of Congress and their staffs to the Capitol Police and the cleaning crews for the buildings.

A chaplain Cadge had interviewed for her book described her work as being in “the theology of hope,” but Cadge doesn’t see that reflected universally in the work of the chaplains profiled in Doblmeier’s documentary:

The chaplains Doblmeier profiles do not share a uniform theology of hope—or any theology—and I remain uncertain after watching this film whether they share much beyond their titles. Many—probably most—are good listeners, genuinely concerned about the people for whom they care. Many have deep networks in their community and serve as effective translators between particular communities and the police or families and healthcare providers.

Cadge puts forth a number of questions:

How are changing religious demographics, particularly growing numbers of people who claim no religious affiliation, influencing the demand for and work of chaplains?

What factors influence both who chaplains are and also what work they do in different sectors?

How do chaplains work with people who are religiously similar to and different from themselves?

Read her entire essay here.

Photo: “US Navy 040418-M-4657S-001 Battalion Landing Team Chaplain, Navy Lt. John Hoke, holds mass for several Marines” by U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Robert A. Sturkie – This Image was released by the United States Marine Corps with the ID 040418-M-4657S-001


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Anne Bay

My dad had many chaplaincy assignments throughout his priesthood and he cherished being able to do so. The list of his various chaplaincies is long, being that he was a priest for decades, so I will not list them~ suffice it to say, people do rely on being able to talk with a chaplain, no matter what their religious beliefs or none are. My dad went through rigorous training to do chaplaincy work, and that would be my suggestion, that any chaplain have training, experience, and the love of that work.

David Allen

While a seminary student in Seattle in the late 80s I served for a little over two years as the volunteer chaplain from the Multi-faith AIDS Project of Seattle to Rosehedge House, a care/hospice facility for folks living with chemical addictions and AIDS. I was available as the chaplain to residents, family members and facility staff. I participated in a lot of funerals over those two years.

Ann Mellow

Grateful for highlighting the important work of chaplains and for Wendy Cadge’s thoughtful insights. The questions she poses are at the center of conversations among Episcopal school chaplains as well, clergy who are called to minister with integrity and love to students, faculty members, and families of diverse beliefs and practices within and among many Christian and non-Christian denominations, as well as the “spiritual but not religious” and the “nones.” It is very important and ever-evolving work! Our schools would not be whole without our chaplains.

The Rev Bruce A. Gray

I am grateful to Wendy Cadge for this article. I have not seen the documentary, but the article is informative. I would also like to point out that there are also many volunteer chaplains, especially in the Fire Service and Police Depts. I have served as a volunteer firefighter and chaplain for over 40 years. I currently serve as the Chief Chaplain for the Richmond Virginia Fire Dept. We have just added two new chaplains, one a Baptist Minister (who is African American and a former professional firefighter and State Administrator), and a Roman Catholic Lay Woman who is a certified hospital chaplain. We set very high standards and qualifications to recruit new chaplains. I am a retired Episcopal Church Rector. We serve a very diverse department and city, and we strive to respect those of every faith or no faith. The role of chaplains in the fire service is changing significantly, working on physical and mental health issues, family support and PTSD. Two weeks ago we had a 27 year old man die in a fire. It became my role to check on two rookie firefighters on their second shift since graduation and to inform the mother of the deceased that her son had died in the fire. When we have this kind of tragedy, we try to contact the local faith community if there is one and get that church, synagogue, or mosque, of other faith community involved. I hardly ever attend a fire or other incident without a firefighter saying, “Thanks for being here.” That makes it all worth it.

The Rev. Dr. Bruce A. Gray, Chief Chaplain, Richmond Fire Dept.

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