The 2016 Poetry Café: Creating a Healing Space and Providing Hospitality in the Medstar Georgetown University Hospital Chapel for those of All Faiths

The 1st Annual Poetry Café celebrated the healing power of the written word for the entire Medstar Georgetown University Hospital (MGUH) community.  Held on June 16th, the occasion revealed the significance of the 1 Main Hospital Chapel as a sacred space and the importance of the ministry of hospitality in gathering individuals of all faiths. For me, the privilege of organizing this wonderful event provided a meaningful opportunity to reflect on my experience as a chaplain resident.

The inspiration for the event came from Deacon Tom Devaney, director of Mission and Pastoral Care (M&PC), who believes that, consistent with our Ignatian tradition, God is found in all things and that we should provide for the unique care of the whole person or cura personalis.  His vision grew from his desire to celebrate the healing power of poetry and the creative arts for patients, family members, associates and members of the university community as well as to recognize the importance of the chapel as a space for people of all faiths to gather for reflection.

To implement this vision, he created a partnership between Mission & Pastoral Care and the Georgetown Lombardi Arts & Humanities Program.  We formed a planning committee, including individuals of many talents, all of whom were excited about our charge and are recognized here.   In exploring ways to provide care for the whole person and create a sense of belonging in the chapel, we settled on a poetry reading in a coffeehouse atmosphere.  We hoped that the notion of a coffeehouse would be appealing and inspiring to all members of the community.

We invited submissions of short works on the themes of comfort, healing, empowerment, and transformation from all members of the community.  For writers who needed a bit of encouragement, Nancy Morgan, Arts & Humanities writing clinician and director emeritus, led workshops on these themes, giving patients and employees the opportunity to reflect creatively on their journey. We were overwhelmed by the response, receiving 35 submissions of which 20 were shared during the event.  Julia Langely, director of the Arts & Humanities Program and a committee member, recognized the fluidity of the themes in the chosen works, enabling us to create a program that revealed the transformative power of expressive writing in coping with the stress of illness or caring for a loved one in the hospital.

With poems in hand, we turned our attention to creating a coffeehouse atmosphere in the chapel, while maintaining the sacredness of the space.  Built in 1947, the Catholic chapel has long been a sacred place for worship and healing.  In order to create an environment of inclusiveness, we respectfully removed all religious articles from the space and added elements that reflected both creativity and comfort.  Behind the podium, we created a backdrop for the poets by hanging a quilt that depicted the earthly seasons, which was made by Lauren Kingsland, Georgetown Lombardi artist-in-residence.  In addition, bright pillows and blankets were added to the pews to encourage everyone to relax and enjoy the experience.

The event was a tremendous success, surpassing our greatest hopes – it was attended by approximately 80 people as well as broadcast throughout the Hospital.   To create a festive mood, djembe drum music, played by Laura Shay, once a chaplain intern, welcomed the audience members and then provided a transition between readers.  In addition, listeners provided encouragement by snapping their fingers rather than by traditional clapping.  Another former intern, Lisa Levine, performed a song she had written in honor of one of her patients. Finally, using warmth and humor in a poem of her creation, Sarah Spinler, M&PC Office Administrator, brought the event to a close and invited everyone to enjoy refreshments afterwards.

I was encouraged by the success of the event though, more importantly, I was delighted by how it served as a beautiful example of the ministry of hospitality.  In a recent sermon, William Tweedley, former staff chaplain, reminded me that hospitality is the way that we live out our faith by giving others our full attention and seeing them as they truly are.  He shared that we often think it is in “doing” but it is rather in “listening” that we enable another to feel heard, understood, appreciated, and loved.  Such empathy and understanding is what I experienced during the Poetry Café as audience members heard and honored the healing words of the readers in a warm and inclusive environment.  Through this joyful and poignant event, hospitality was extended to and received by our entire community, embracing all races, faiths and cultures.

Though I will not be at MGUH next year, my greatest wish is that there will be a 2nd Annual Poetry Café.  I hope that the healing experienced by participants in the sacred space of the chapel provides a foundation for the growth of the event next year.  I was touched by the poets’ words and the courage that they showed in sharing their journeys, providing so much meaning and inspiration. Ultimately, as a multi-faith chaplain and someone who seeks God in all things, the Poetry Café provided an exquisite example of patient care that I will always carry with me.

Written by Kristen Richards Parnes, Palliative Care Research Study Chaplain

Mission and Pastoral Care