We want to shine a spotlight on the chaplaincy ministry. Several diocesan clergy are full- or part-time chaplains, including The Rev. Gaea Thompson. As of December 2020, she is Manager of Pastoral Care at UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) Presbyterian/Montefiore hospital in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA. Before that, for 22 years she was the chaplain at a long-term care facility with historic ties to the Anglican Church – Canterbury Place, UPMC Senior Communities. Gaea sat down in a Zoom meeting over coffee with Kristen Parise, Director of Communications. Excerpts from their conversation are recorded below. As we began our conversation, Gaea was about to officiate at a funeral service.
Kristen Parise: If I may ask, who is the funeral this morning for?
Gaea Thompson: It is someone from the hospital. I made a sweet, tender, and deep connection with this man. I listened to him talk for about 45 minutes to an hour, which is rare – I don’t usually have that much time in the hospital, but that day it worked out. I heard enough of his story to understand why he was not active in the church. He was a good guy and struggled with theodicy—why is there suffering in this beautiful world? He tried to do the right thing and got burned a couple of times which increased his sense of isolation from the Church.
KP: How long have you been a priest in this diocese? What has your ministry journey been so far?
GT: I started attending Church the Ascension in August of 1990 as a graduate student in music. With encouragement from Doug McGlynn [late, former Rector of Church of the Ascension], I started studies at Trinity School for Ministry in 1991 and finished my M.Div. in 1995. As I thought about discerning my call, I knew that I did not feel called to minister in a parish setting. Fr. Doug and I discussed calling and discernment and found out about a yearlong chaplain residency at West Penn Hospital. I felt like a duck in water in that role, and so it began.
Employment in Long Term Care in 1996 clarified my sense of calling to the Priesthood. There was a need to function sacramentally for the residents staff and family members. In 1998, I was invited to apply at Canterbury Place. As I sat down in the facility, I felt God's peace descend on me. I thought “This is it! I'm home!” I half joked that I would work at Canterbury till I needed a room, I was perfectly content. Ministry there was profoundly moving and a great privilege. Chaplains are invited into peoples lives at a time of crisis, chronic displacement, and other changes. This often affords a window to cut to the chase and invite people into a deeper, or even new walk with the Lord. It is holy ground!
The Manager of Pastoral Care at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital retired after being there for 30 years. Larry Heimer and I had trained and taught together, and Andrea Buettner (another deacon in the diocese who is a chaplain there) was praying about his replacement. I promised Andrea I’d consider applying even though leaving Canterbury had not been on my radar. I sensed the Lord speaking to my heart, “Try and trust.” So I did, and the doors just kept opening. When they offered me the position, it just seemed like an incredible opportunity to be in a context where there are so many people – it is like a little city! The hospital staff are from so many different countries, patients come from around the world, too.
KP: I can imagine there is really no such thing as a normal day, but what does the day-to-day look like in your ministry as Manager of Pastoral Care?
GT: There are 1,200 beds, dozens of specialized units, and multiple specialized ICU units. So on a typical day, we check to see how many patients have requested a visit. At first, it can look feasible and then the schedule explodes. We go out for our first round of visits, then we come back to the office to chart. There are new requests added, the pager goes off, and the list gets longer. During the week there are usually at least two or three of us. For sacramental requests, we always have a Catholic priest and a Protestant or Jewish chaplain either in-house or on call. On the weekends the one chaplain in house is usually not enough, but we have a system of backing each other up, with someone available to come in when needed.
We go everywhere. We may be in an ICU unit for one moment and then in a rehab unit with an elderly person who just had a stroke, or in a room where a patient broke an ankle and needs surgery. We also hold chapel services regularly at the hospital. We have Catholic Mass daily and Protestant worship service twice a week. Those services are broadcast on a closed-circuit TV system throughout the whole hospital, so patients can watch in their rooms.
KP: From your perspective, take us inside the room that you enter – anecdotally is just fine.
GT: To be clear, there’s a difference between these COVID times and non-COVID times, and I haven’t experienced non-COVID times in my current position yet. So a chaplain would come into a patient’s room and introduce himself or herself, and say “I'm here to support you – is there anything I can do to help your stay here be more comfortable?”
Then we might just try to get to know the person, what brings them here, do they have a particular faith tradition? Then we may ask them questions about their life, not just what's happening medically. Theology and relationships get all interwoven, so they talk about people they've loved, people they've been close to. Sometimes a measure of confession can be of help, or affirming that feelings are normal, or that fear and faith aren't always antithetical. Sometimes fear is a gift to tell us that something's dangerous or scary, or anger is a present to tell us a boundary has been trespassed. Parsing out what is healthy guilt and helpful feelings vs. what might be toxic shame is hard work. Chaplains are trained to listen for that intersectionality of theology and pastoral counseling. It’s the chaplain in partnership with God as soul surgeon.
KP: So your current job has always been in the context of the pandemic, but you’ve been a chaplain both before and during the pandemic – what’s it like being a chaplain in a pandemic?
GT: At first it was really scary. Those first few weeks I walked to work with a letter that said that I was an essential employee allowed to be outside. Then the positive cases came to our building. I wasn't mandated to go into COVID positive rooms – it was a choice. But I felt that any chaplain worth her salt would go where her team is being asked to go.
I was profoundly disturbed that our lowest paid healthcare workers – certified nursing assistants who, in my building were mostly persons of color – were spending the most time in contact with positive cases. I was not going to leave them alone. So I suited up the along with them. A woman whose mom had lived there till she was 100 made a bunch of cloth masks for staff, and I took them to the units. I had what I called my COVID cassock and my little duck bill and my face shield. Afterwards I would take the cassock off, put it in a plastic bag, change my clothes, and walk home to take a shower. I have done so much laundry and taken so many showers you should see my water bill – oh, and I chopped off my hair because I had to keep washing it. After being in a COVID room you can't go to other rooms so I had those visits at the end of the day. We didn't lose any staff at Canterbury, but I have met healthcare workers who've come in as patients, and even still now there are some who are dying of the virus.
KP: What keeps you going in this - not just the during the pandemic, but over 20 years of chaplaincy ministry now.
GT: People are wonderful, and love is worth the risk. I just adore people! Humans are just amazing; you know that each person is a unique miracle of God made in his image. I get to know people and hear their story because it's part of God's work. It is holy ground and it's a privilege to walk with people in difficult times. And there are some wins, people progress spiritually, physically. One of my Canterbury residents asked me how I can stand it. She was tenderhearted and always sad when another resident died. I said it was that I have a very well developed eschatology. I explained that I'm really excited about what happens after this life. I'm not a universalist, but I really believe God is so much kinder than we think, more merciful, and loves us more than we realize.
KP: Is there someone else, in terms of your journey, who deserves special mention?
GT: My CPE supervisor for my residency at West Penn hospital is a retired Lutheran minister named Phil Williams. Phil modeled for me the integration of psychology and theology at its best. It allowed space for me to understand myself and others better. Bishop Jim Hobby, in one of his visits, came down to the memory care worship service. One woman stood up praising, dancing, and clapping to “When the Saints Go Marching In” and he was delighted! He saw how much I loved the people, and he loved them too.
The diocese also acknowledges other clergy members who are serving as volunteer or paid chaplains, including The Rev. Andrea Buettner, The Rev. Dr. John Paul Chaney, The Rev. James Chester (Police Chaplain), The Rev. Glenn Crytzer, The Rev. Harold Hicks (Police Chaplain), The Rev. Justin Hogg, The Rev. Barbara McMillen, The Rev. Jeff Mead, The Rev. Claire Megles, The Rev. Frances Metcalf, The Rev. Suzanne Perkins, and The Rev. Regis Turocy. If we have missed someone, please forgive our error & let us know so we can correct it.