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Hospitals Revamp Chapels into Meditation Rooms

c. 2010 Religion News Service
SACRAMENTO Calif. (RNS) 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, particularly Catholic nuns. 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.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Gwyddion9

    Personally, I think it’s wonderful. It allows whoever to go in and meditate or worship without the trappings of another religion constantly being present.
    While some may complain, it puts everyone’s religion on an even playing field.

  • Henrietta22

    Our Hospitals (the medical world, again) helping to educate Americans with divirsity in all manner of Chapels available for whatever comfort people’s beliefs bring to them. Thanks to the Chaplains cooperating with them.

  • Glenn

    I don’t think that these rooms have to be “Branded” to be officially anything. If one feels the need to go into a room to be alone with God then I certainly have no problem with it.

  • John

    These rooms at Kaiser should remain labeled as “Prayer Rooms” since that ill-managed healthcare organization kills many many patients every year due to its sheer incompetence.
    Kaiser Permanente is the DMV of healthcare.

  • nnmns

    It seems like a good idea to me, too.

  • Jeffery Murphy

    I am a chaplain at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Our chapel is several years old. It was designed by a committee that included Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu representation. Christian worship and Muslim prayers are offered in the chapel weekly. The chapel is regularly used by people of many different faith traditions. We also often receive compliments on it from people of many different faith traditions.

  • jestrfyl

    All of this seems like an excellent idea. But doesn’t the initial planning meeting lend itself to the opening to a great joke in need of a punchline? Here’s the opening, you supply the laugh…
    An imam, a rabbi, a pastor, and a priest walk into a room – ba-dum-bum.
    Creativity counts more than neatness, chuckles and laughs count more than political correctness or inter-religious sensitivity (unless someone gets vindictive or nasty – then may it rain on all your cookouts or may your slip’n slide be forever dry and dusty)
    Have fun, pray often, laugh more, and don’t get tangled in the web of silliness.

  • pagansister

    An excellent idea. Chapels with nature as the primary design are as close to “holiness” as one can get….because IMO, what is more sacred than nature? Nature is non-denominational….it is all inclusive.

  • cknuck

    Who cares what the rooms are called as long as they are there. Hospitals are very stressful environments for both patients and workers many need to pray and find a space to muster strength.

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