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Hospitals revamp chapels into meditation rooms

July 27, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif.

When Connie Johnstone saw relatives of Muslim patients praying in a hospital parking lot, or laying out a plastic bag to create a clean spot on the lobby floor, her visions of a meditation room suddenly got a lot broader.

“I took note of that and said, ‘Hey, we need to have a place for them to pray,’” said Johnstone, the former manager of spiritual care at Kaiser Permanente facilities in Sacramento and suburban Roseville, who now holds a similar position in San Jose.

Johnstone wanted to create a space “that calls up beauty, something that is quiet to still the spirit” for patients, visitors and staff. She also wanted to accommodate the region’s diverse religious and cultural rituals.

Johnstone created three meditation rooms, the first of which opened this month (July) in Sacramento. The other two, in Roseville 30 miles to the northeast, are expected to open later this year.

The rooms will look similar: Each will have stained glass windows depicting nature scenes, movable chairs, kneelers for Catholic worshippers, space for Muslim prayer rugs and literature from a variety of faiths.

While Johnstone chose a nature theme, a colleague at a separate Kaiser facility across town chose symbols from nearly a dozen major religious traditions in the Interfaith Meditation Chapel of Hope that’s under construction.

The shift to meditation rooms mirrors a growing trend among hospitals nationwide as health care centers try to make room for people from a wide variety of faiths, as well as those who have no faith or are “spiritual but not religious.”

In a stressful environment, hospital chapels, meditation rooms or prayer rooms offer employees, patients and visitors quiet refuge for individual prayer, meditation or communal worship.

Throughout the 19th century, many U.S. hospitals were built by religious groups. As a result, their chapels typically resembled Protestant or Catholic churches or Jewish synagogues.

Today, hospital chapels vary widely. Some still reflect their founders’ religious roots. Others have been renovated to accommodate multiple religions, or their religious symbols have been removed so the rooms resemble waiting rooms or art galleries.

“There was a diversity for a long time that was Christian diversity,” said the Rev. George Handzo, vice president of pastoral care leadership and practice at HealthCare Chaplaincy, based in New York City.

Staff and patient populations at many U.S. hospitals are much more diverse than they once were, and hospitals know it makes good business sense to accommodate them, Handzo said. “They don’t want to lose those people to the place down the street.”

Some hospitals have Jewish family rooms or Shabbos rooms, which can be stocked with couches, prayer books, kosher food and kitchen appliances. Located in hospitals or nearby apartments, they are typically paid for by the local Jewish community.

Some prayer rooms are outfitted for Muslim worship. Five years ago, Boston’s renowned Massachusetts General Hospital installed a mihrab, or ornately tiled archway, in a prayer room to help Muslims orient themselves toward Mecca during prayer.

Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University Hospital added Muslim prayer rugs at the back wall of its Catholic chapel, and later removed the Stations of the Cross facing Mecca, said the Rev. Brian Conley, the Jesuit hospital’s director of mission and pastoral care.

Wendy Cadge, associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University near Boston, includes a chapter on hospital chapels in her forthcoming book, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine.

She’s visited about 30 chapels nationwide, and she said it’s increasingly common to find renovated chapels that include images of nature instead of religious symbols to make them welcoming to a broad range of people.

“The question to ask — which I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to — is whether these renovations make the space more welcoming and therefore used by a range of people, or whether they make the space sort of unfamiliar to a lot of people so nobody knows quite what they’re for and as a result they don’t get used,” Cadge said.

An openness to spirituality reflects two larger changes in health care, experts said. Hospitals are embracing religion because of an increased awareness of a mind-body-spirit connection, and also increased spiritual diversity.

Beyond chapel design, hospitals offer kosher meals for Jews and halal meals for Muslims; vegetarian options for Hindus or Buddhists; and food for Muslim employees to break the Ramadan fast.

Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, which has a Christian-style chapel and an interfaith meditation room, is planning to open a nondenominational chapel with a nature motif. A vertical rod in the floor will allow clergy to attach various religious emblems.

While Johns Hopkins is most focused on patients’ physical care, administrators also want to respect their religious, spiritual and cultural needs, said the Rev. Uwe Scharf, who directs the hospital’s pastoral care department.

“People will only come to the hospitals where they feel that their whole person is acknowledged and welcome, and that their heritage is actually celebrated,” he said.

  1. What is lost in this zeal to be accommodating is asking atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other faiths if they desire a "meditation room." Christians and Jews look for a non-sectarian and interfaith place in a hospital for prayer and worship. Working as a hospital chaplain for many years, I have yet to run into a patient or staff member asking for a room to meditate.

    by Tom Paine

    July 28, 2010

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