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All hands on deck: Spiritual health across Emory’s hospitals and campuses

Emory Healthcare’s spiritual health team offers support regardless of faith or culture. “Our role is multi-faith, interfaith or no faith — we are trained to be led by the person’s own values,” explains George Grant, executive director of spiritual health.

The blue coats are not working from home. They are there, fully present, in Emory’s hospitals and health care campuses to talk with anyone who needs them — patients, families or staff. 

“We talk about the zone of resilience, but this is going way out of bounds,” says George Grant, executive director of spiritual health for Emory Healthcare. “Staff support has become critical. Folks are carrying not only their anxieties and fears about work, but also about what is happening at home. They are leaving their loved ones and coming back into that atmosphere day in and day out. Their roles are constantly changing, it’s just overwhelming.

“We lean up against a wall that is six feet away and are there for people,” he adds. “The best we can do is to show that we’re nearby. People feel a sense of calm, knowing that one of the blue coats is on the unit.” 

The spiritual health team includes 46 full-time staff and 52 part-time staff who serve across the Emory Healthcare system, 24/7. It began as the Emory Center for Pastoral Services more than 50 years ago and has evolved over time. 

“We respond to patients, family and staff by caring for the whole person through every stage of health,” says Grant, who has a master’s of divinity from Emory’s Candler School of Theology and is a United Methodist minister. "We care for the spiritual health of all people, regardless of faith or culture. Our role is multi-faith, interfaith or no faith — we are trained to be led by the person’s own values.” 

Because of the unique isolation imposed by COVID-19, spiritual health staff have been called on to stand in for family members of patients.

“In that moment, we care for our patients while maintaining protection for ourselves and others,” Grant says. “We may talk to a family member by phone or on Facetime, being a bridge to the loved one.”

Mary Beth Krivanek, senior chaplain at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital, has been placing baby monitors in ICU rooms to connect patients with families who can’t visit.

Spiritual health staff have held debriefings for medical teams during daily huddles or while coping with COVID-19 deaths. And they have supported staff from food, facilities and environmental services. “We are with people as they prepare to go into rooms, we want them to feel figuratively held as they go about that dangerous work,” Grant says. 

They have also filmed a series of videos on topics from anxiety reduction, to mindfulness and meditative breathing, to support found in scripture, available to anyone who might need them.

In “Clean Hands, Calm Heart,” psychiatrist Charles “Chuck” Raison shows how the simple act of washing your hands can be paired with prayer or meditation; in “Hope and Beauty in the Chaos,” Timothy Park, director of spiritual health at Emory Johns Creek Hospital, shares his own fears and how to find solace in slowing down;  and in “Angels with Us,” Chaplain Joyce Young of Emory Decatur Hospital talks about combatting the invisible, relentless coronavirus through clinical “SWAT” teams and spiritual guidance and protection.

“We started the videos three or four weeks ago,” Grant says. “We’ve got about 15 in the hopper right now and are doing more every day.” To view the videos, go to the Emory Healthcare spiritual health web resources.

“I tend to watch the video content every night,” he adds. “I feel comforted by the sense of common purpose. We are adapting and creating new, multifaceted ways of having human contact. We’re generating a sense of hope when there’s a great deal of discouragement, despondency, despair. That’s our reason for being.” 

Spiritually serving dispersed campus communities

Lyn Pace, chaplain of Oxford College of Emory, is used to seeing students on campus, running into them in the dining hall or while walking through the “temple of the trees” on the quad.

These days, however, he sees students in a more deliberate fashion. “I had my first Zoom meeting with the leaders of our religious and spiritual life clubs a few Wednesdays ago,” Pace says. “I had them reflect on a high, a low, and a grateful to share with each other. It was a revealing and beautiful moment. There were a lot of tears. Some are living in the same house with immunosuppressed siblings or elders. Others were lamenting the losses — of community, campus-wide events, all the festivities that come with the month of April, Commencement weekend celebrations.”

But the students shared joys as well: “Many of them spoke about getting extra time with parents and family in a time of uncertainty,” Pace says. “Underlying much of it for them is the same as for me — wondering when we will return to any normalcy and what that new normal, including our rituals and routines and rhythms, will look like.” 

Rituals and traditions bind religious communities, and the holy days of many faiths occur in the spring, from Passover, to Easter, to Ramadan.

“Our teams have been working tirelessly to figure out how to continue to offer care for students scattered across the world,” Pace says. “They seek to foster the same kind of community remotely as they do when we’re all together. And they do all of this when, like the rest of us, they are unsettled at headline after headline that comes our way. It gives me hope, and I’m grateful.”

Lisa Garvin, associate dean of the chapel and religious life at Emory, stayed on campus the week after spring break, while students were moving out. “I wanted to be there to have conversations, check in and ask, how are you doing? How can we help?”

Garvin is also assisting with triaging EmoryTogether Fund requests. The $5 million fund was created to help degree-seeking students who have experienced financial hardships resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Every day, she says, “I go on a walk for my own mental health, but I’m also scrolling through the contacts in my phone, sending quick notes, letting people know ‘I’m thinking of you and am grateful for your work or your leadership in these difficult times.’ Pastoral conversations have arisen out of that. It’s a reminder that they have my cell phone number.” 

One student who stayed in town is living by himself and is sometimes “just lonely,” says Garvin. “He reached out and I try to check in regularly. You have to be thoughtful of people’s differing circumstances. Some are alone and have less to do, others have children and family and are working from home and have more to do.”

Helping students stay connected

Emory’s Inter-Religious Council (IRC), made up of about 30 undergraduate students, is one of Garvin’s primary responsibilities. She meets with the group virtually on Monday evenings, the same time as their usual campus meeting.

“I’m really impressed and touched that we’ve had as many if not more students involved each week than when we were on campus,” she says. “A lot of us are Zoomed out, but seeing all of their faces in their own spaces lifted some weight for me. It is through these coping mechanisms that mental health and religious traditions intersect.”

Other religious groups at Emory are doing the same.

Emory Hillel, an international, pluralist Jewish campus organization, has gone virtual,  sharing traditions, songs, and even Zoom baking online through Facebook and Instagram.

Upali Sraman, Buddhist Religious Life Scholar for Emory’s Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL), is continuing to hold Buddhist meetings online at their regular time and has also experienced increased attendance. The Buddhist meetings include Emory Healthcare and CDC employees, and students’ parents and family members joining in from home.

And while Muslim authorities have cancelled Friday Jum’ah prayers around the world during these extraordinary times, a number of Muslim scholars are doing virtual outreach and online teaching. As Ramadan approaches, Emory’s Muslim Students Association (MSA) is using online platforms to foster community in partnership with MSAs around town and at other universities. “My office is excited to partner with Emory Dining Services to augment the Ramadan experience for students still living on campus by arranging suhoor and iftar meals,” says Isam Vaid, Muslim Religious Life Scholar at the OSRL.

Garvin says religious leaders are working to reframe what “to love your neighbor” means right now: “It’s so counterintuitive, because at the very moment we most want to be with each other, the way we fulfill the commandments of our tradition is not to gather in person.”

Kevin Crawford, assistant chaplain at Emory, recently spoke with a student who “wanted to know how I am living in the darkness, especially without being able to light as many candles as usual. We have given up our freedom. Students miss being on campus and seeing friends, peers, colleagues, even strangers. This is a student class that is very community driven, very confident about their abilities and capacity, and that has taken a hit.”

A global pandemic has reset our identities, individually and collectively, in numerous ways, says Crawford. But this challenging time is not without opportunities.

“There’s a great interpretation of a Christian story, where one world is passing behind you as another is coming up before you,” he says. “The virus proves we are all one. We’ve had to establish new boundaries. There is a lot of fear, and the nature of living together is changing. Students are keenly aware of that, having been dropped in the middle of it. We’ve elected to do the hard work of living in a crisis together.” 

  • Emory University chaplains and staff are available to arrange pastoral care and support for students, faculty, and staff at 404- 727-6226 or Virtual drop-in hours with a chaplain are offered through May 9, Mondays from 1-2 p.m. and Wednesdays from 11 a.m.-12 p.m.
  • Oxford faculty, staff and students can reach the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at 770-784-8392 or

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