The elderly woman in the hospital bed motioned toward the television and said, “No, don’t pray for me, pray for those children. Pray that they are reunited with their families.” This lady, who had fled the Soviet Union in the 1990s, understood what it meant to leave country and family behind. Similar sentiments were expressed by patients over and over during my summer chaplaincy internship, as the hospital became a microcosm of national issues. While some students left campus to go home or to pursue formation opportunities around the country, I stayed on the Close to complete clinical pastoral education (or CPE) in the city. I spent eleven weeks at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Allen Hospital, a 196-bed community hospital located at the northern tip of Manhattan. The hospital serves northern Manhattan, Riverdale, and other communities in the Bronx, Westchester, and Northern New Jersey.
In many ways, the Allen Hospital finds itself in the center of many issues affecting our country. Located in Inwood, a neighborhood that is known as one of the last affordable places to live in Manhattan, encroaching gentrification is creating tension among long-time residents. In my last weeks of CPE, a vote regarding rezoning passed that will allow construction of new housing in the community. The hospital itself is among the services about which residents are concerned. In May, local politicians, community members, and some hospital employees attended a rally to protest closure of the psychiatric unit of the Allen Hospital. Across the country, consolidations and closures of mental health facilities have created a gap through which our most vulnerable citizens may fall.
While I expected to spend time with patients who were seeking counsel about their spiritual or physical health, I did not expect to talk with people whose primary concerns were about the issues facing their community and the country. During CPE, I met patients struggling with opiate addiction and alcohol addiction. I spoke with undocumented patients who, out of fear of deportation, had deferred medical care until the situation became life-threatening. I also spoke with patients trying to find their way in the disorienting political landscape. Just as many parish priests wrestle with these issues within their communities, the summer chaplaincy experience provided a time of limited but intense exposure, not just to the illness and death one anticipates in CPE, but also the larger issues of what it means to live in community. At the end of the day, everyone I talked with just wanted to know that someone was listening to them and seeing them — that was the most valuable lesson I learned.