hospice

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.

Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.

Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.

Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ...  Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.

The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Hey, New York Times! There's a long history of faith-based palliative care, don't'cha know.

Hey, New York Times! There's a long history of faith-based palliative care, don't'cha know.

The notion of caring for those at the end of life's journey is a relatively new one, dating back about 70 years to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician who began working with the terminally ill in 1948. In 1974, Florence Wald, a dean of Yale University's nursing school, teamed up with a chaplain and two physicians to start the Connecticut Hospice in Bradford, Conn.

Since then, at least 5,800 hospice programs have been organized in the United States, according to the most recent figures available (2013) from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. There's no doubt these programs span a spectrum from highly secular to highly spiritual. It's the latter that has caught the attention of The New York Times, where the notion that organizations serving the needs of those in their final days seems to be a rather new concept.

Some background: Until a few months ago, a triple-amputee named B.J. Miller ran the 30-year-old Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, California, where patients went to confront the end of life, receive palliative care and even, in one case, help plan a wedding for the family member of a hospice patient.

Thanks to the Times, we know these things take place in the city by the bay, and what interesting, innovative things they are! Read on:

... Miller also seemed to be on the cusp of modest celebrity. He’d started speaking about death and dying at medical schools and conferences around the country and will soon surface in Oprah’s living room, chatting about palliative care on her “Super Soul Sunday” TV show.
... Vicki Jackson, the chief of palliative care at Massachusetts General Hospital ... pointed to the talk Miller gave to close the TED conference in 2015. Miller described languishing in a windowless, antiseptic burn unit after his amputations. He heard there was a blizzard outside but couldn’t see it himself. Then a nurse smuggled him a snowball and allowed him to hold it. This was against hospital regulations, and this was Miller’s point: There are parts of ourselves that the conventional health care system isn’t equipped to heal or nourish, adding to our suffering. He described holding that snowball as “a stolen moment,” and said, “But I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin, the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet, in this universe, mattered more to me than whether I lived or died.” Miller’s talk has been watched more than five million times. And yet, Jackson told me: “If I said all that — ‘Oh, I could feel the coldness of the snowball ...’ — you’d be like: ‘Shut. Up. Shut up!’ But no one is going to question B.J.”

 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Parade of 2016 yearenders: Religion News Service publishes its own 'best of' list

Parade of 2016 yearenders: Religion News Service publishes its own 'best of' list

The Religion News Service published its own yearender list -- kind of.

Rather than the top religion-beat news events of the year, apparently this 2016 "best of" collection featured the stories that the RNS staff considered their favorites, perhaps even focusing on stories that hit close to home for the writers.

Click here to read this whole feature, complete with the URLs to the stories themselves.

But here are some headlines and ledes to scan, as formatted by the non-profit news service and its team. The result is kind of an eclectic list of sidebars and features, offering commentary on the year and a few major events.

The best news story in the set? Check out the feature by veteran Adelle Banks on efforts to encourage "end of life" conversations among clergy and members of religious congregations. 

And back to the list: 

After 40 years of women rabbis, a Q&A with the first
By Lauren Markoe | December 8, 2016
(RNS) A self-described private person, Sally Priesand didn’t want to be a pioneer. She just wanted to be a rabbi.
Meet the soft-spoken US-born rabbi challenging Israel’s religious establishment
By Michele Chabin | November 30, 2016
JERUSALEM (RNS) The Modern Orthodox rabbi founded ITIM, an organization that helps converts and others navigate the religious establishment’s legendary bureaucracy.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Los Angeles Times hears the voices: A nun, a dying woman and prayers that last forever

The Los Angeles Times hears the voices: A nun, a dying woman and prayers that last forever

On one level, it was a simple assignment. The metro desk at The Rocky Mountain News had received a call about a wedding that was sure to be poignant. The bride had cancelled her church rites several months in the future so that a simple ceremony could take place beside the deathbed of her father, whose cancer had taken a sudden turn for the worse.

My editor's instructions: Make me cry by the third paragraph or you're fired. His advice: Look for crucial details and let their voices tell the story. One symbolic detail was the copy of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" on the father's nightstand.

I thought about that story, which generated more letters from readers than anything else I wrote in Denver, when I read the Los Angeles Times feature that ran the other day with this headline: "People don’t want to die alone. With Sister Maria standing vigil, they've got company."

There isn't much I can say other than this: Listen to the voices and pay attention to the crucial details in this very human, yet deeply spiritual, story. Here is the overture:

Esperanza Calderon stared at Sister Maria Socorro with half-closed eyes. The nun hunched over her as she reclined in a living room chair, wrapped in a blanket and slowly but inexorably dying.

As the 70-year-old woman’s sister clasped her hand, Socorro held a book open across her palms. Together the three women prayed.

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof,” the woman followed along in Spanish, her voice fragile. “But one word from you would be enough to heal me.”

At the heart of the story is the humble work of the Servants of Mary.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Let's face it. The religion-news beat is amazing. I have never understood how many journalists consider this a fringe topic that doesn't deserve mainstream coverage.

Decades ago, I interviewed scores of newspaper editors for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and you want to know the two most common reasons they gave for avoiding religion? Religion was (a) boring and (b) too controversial. That's the problem, you see, the world is just full of boring, controversial religion stories.

I think any professional who works on this beat for multiple decades -- which describes all the current GetReligionistas -- lives in a state of amazement at how complex new stories, and new angles on old stories, just keep showing up.

That's how I felt reading a very interesting New York Times feature about the struggle to promote hospice in African-American churches. Once again, it is amazing what the Times can do when a religion topic doesn't touch on the Sexual Revolution and, thus, clash with the core doctrines of Kellerism. Here is the key summary material near the top of this fine story, which opens with tragic events in the lives of the Rev. Vernal Harris and his wife Narseary, who have lost two sons to sickle cell anemia:

Hospice use has been growing fast in the United States as more people choose to avoid futile, often painful medical treatments in favor of palliative care and dying at home surrounded by loved ones. But the Harrises, who are African-American, belong to a demographic group that has long resisted the concept and whose suspicions remain deep-seated.
It is an attitude borne out by recent federal statistics showing that nearly half of white Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in hospice before death, compared with only a third of black patients. The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to advance care directives -- legal documents meant to help families make life-or-death decisions that reflect a patient’s choices. Some 40 percent of whites aged 70 and over have such plans, compared with only 16 percent of blacks.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Buddhists, brownies and being engaged in the nitty gritty of life (and maybe news)

Buddhists, brownies and being engaged in the nitty gritty of life (and maybe news)

In 1997 I went to Yonkers, N.Y., to interview one of the most senior Zen Buddhist teachers in the United States about Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Browne ice cream. Pretty sweet assignment, right? (Is that a collective groan I hear?)

The teacher was Brooklyn-born Bernard Glassman, also known by his Zen name Tetsugen, who  started a community there designed to provide job training, employment, child care, housing, medical care, and other assistance to ex-drug addicts, ex-felons, single parents, the homeless, HIV and AIDS sufferers, and others facing hard times. He named his endeavor Greyston and one of its creations was a bakery that produced brownies for Ben & Jerry's ice cream products.

I was reminded of Greyston and Glassman -- both still going strong, by the way -- by a story that ran recently in The Washington Post about a White House-sponsored conference on Buddhism and public life. It contained the following paragraph:

"The daylong conference represents, some experts say, the start of a civic awakening not only among U.S. Buddhists, but even Buddhists overseas, where spiritual and religious life can sometimes be separated from things like politics and policy. U.S. Buddhists have high rates of political attentiveness and voting, but until recent years haven’t considered or focused specifically on how their Buddhism translates into public action."

Start of a civic awakening?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Sensitive feature looks at caregivers' work with the dying

Thank God, literally, that not all religion news stories are about terrorists or same-sex marriage or separation of church and state. They don’t all even snark at fundamentalism. Some stories just try to help us understand. And feel.

Stories like a Boston Globe feature on clergy who care for the dying.

Written by a Globe correspondent rather than a staff writer, the story is an old-fashioned feature. It asks spiritual caregivers who and what they encounter — types of people, their thoughts and feelings and challenges — and how the caregivers cope.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The powerful ghost in the death choir story

While I have listened to choirs that have bored me nearly to death with their singing, I never knew there were choirs that would sing to you when you are near to death.

Please respect our Commenting Policy