I am drawing smiley hearts on the back of small wallet-sized cards. On the flip side of these cards, typed over a background pattern of blue sky and white clouds read the words, "Healing Ourselves, Healing Community."
I am giving these cards to clients and colleagues as a parting gift. Today is my last day serving as clinical chaplain at a large, adult day "harm reduction" treatment center in New York City for people living with HIV. Many clients are "triply diagnosed," with mental illness, substance "use" (addiction), and/or trauma history. They are largely people of color, including a growing contingent of women, with long histories of homelessness or at-risk housing.
Multiple factors contribute to the approaching termination. Understanding how and why this is happening no longer seems important.
I am focussed on saying farewell. This is not easy. I am filled with emotion. For nearly four years, we have travelled together through some of the most moving and difficult moments of our lives. We built a healthcare program, which engages clients and staff in what could be called broadly-framed spirituality, as the foundation for healing. We offered opportunities for everyone to keep returning to essential questions:
What keeps me going? What's important right now?
These questions then become the frame through which to focus.
I pause with a cup of tea, and draw hearts on the remaining cards. Most clients have left.
A week earlier, on a Friday, shortly before hearing the news regarding termination, I venture outdoors with fifteen clients and James, a new social worker, for a group entitled, "Be the Change." It connects with the theme of a program offered on September 11. In bright sunshine, we walk to the recently opened Highline Park. The park used to be a long stretch of abandoned railroad tracks. Now it brings people together to relax and connect while offering a poignant reminder of possibility.
We have a grand time doing just that.
As we walk, clients share their experiences of transformation. One client tells me of his aspiration to serve others now that he is in recovery.
Arriving back at the Center, I soon learn of the termination and that my next work day, scheduled to be a Tuesday, would be my last. I advocate for an extension to that Friday, which given this half-time position, means three days to terminate with over one hundred clients as well as many colleagues. Susan, our executive director, says she'll see what she can do.
Over the weekend, not knowing if my next day at work will be my last, I ponder how to transition. After mindfully riding stormy waves of emotional reactivity, I realize that caring for myself is of utmost importance. I ride the breath and slowly focus.
I remember how each week, in a group entitled, "Moving On," I ask each client to contemplate, "How am I moving on?"
I begin to draft a letter to staff expressing what our time together means to me. I stop. I cannot write. My mind goes visual. I start making Healing Community cards. I think of an image accompanied by words, which has become a logo expressing the vision of our program. This logo evolved over time during countless "spiritual groups" with titles including, "Moving On," "Spirituality and Addictions," "Ancient Wisdom and Well-Being," "TranSpirit," and "Keeping Your Cool." I would draw a circle in the middle of a blackboard. Around the edge of the circle I'd write three words: safety, trust, respect.
As folks told their stories, I would list in the middle of the circle core human values, which they named in responding to breath-centered contemplations:
Breathing in, What keeps me going?
Breathing out, What's important right now?
I call this method Attuned Breath Centering.
If someone names an addictive substance or behavior, I ask, "what's important about that?" Soon enough, somebody would say, "it helps me relax," and this might lead to deeper exploration. Someone might mention "money" or "get a job." As we go deeper, they might say, "Then I'd know my life serves a purpose" or "Then, I'd feel connected," "I'd be happy."
We learned in those groups to speak the language of Non-Violent Communication, which expresses intimacy as the experience of meeting everybody's needs.
Sitting at home, it is my turn to consider all those words and put the ones that matter on this card. Sitting in front of the laptop with a "business card" template file open, I am staring at many circles with nothing typed in their centers. In the silence of breathing in and breathing out, the words come. I type,
Healing Ourselves, Healing Community
After printing these cards, I want to add a personal touch, something handwritten or hand drawn. I turn a card over and draw a smiley heart in the center of the circle. I turn it over again, seeing the blue sky and clouds. I hold it up to the light. There, shining through is the smile.
I sit for over an hour drawing smiles on card after card. I feel a calm joy settling in.
Next, I print a poem written in the last year entitled, Prayer for the Journey. The next day, I make copies of the poem and buy heart-shaped paper clips in various colors. Back home, I begin to prepare packages of the poem and card connected with the heart clip.
When I return to to the Center on Tuesday, Susan tells me my request has been granted and my last day will be Friday. The poignant announcement and sharings during morning staff meeting are punctuated by Susan expressing her appreciation and me expressing mine, then letting colleagues know my plans to offer a parting gift to clients, which I also plan to give to each of them. I hand one to Susan and say, "I'll need to make more for staff. For now, I would like to entrust this one to Susan and thank her for leadership during very difficult times." She is moved and we all meet in a tender space, which holds very different emotional responses to the news. It feels most intimate.
After the meeting, I stop by Susan's office to check in. Referring to the upcoming community meeting scheduled for 11am, she says, "I'm not looking forward to this. The clients will be upset." I reply, "I'll stand with you." Our eyes meet. She says, "thank you. I really appreciate that."
I walk slowly down the corridor towards our dining area where the meeting is to take place.
I see the pillar in the center. During our fourth annual A Day of Unity, held in July, we covered the pillar with paper cutouts in the shape of hands. On each hand is a message connecting with that day's theme. On the table in front of this pillar stands the poster we placed there on September 11, entitled, "Keep the Ball Rolling: Be the Change."
I think of another pillar, which stands at the opposite end of the facility. It is composed of tiny ceramic tiles in a gorgeous mosaic, which express themes of hope and peace. Towards the center of that pillar is the image of the famous red ribbon marking the journey of living and dying with HIV. This project, which took one year to complete, was the inspiration of Diana, the Director of Creative Arts Therapies.
I realize what we all have accomplished together. We have come full circle. My chest feels warm and expansive. My hands tremble slightly.
I place the farewell gifts in a medium-sized wicker basket. Just before the community gathers for announcements including that of my imminent departure, I walk over to the "Be the Change" table in the center of the room. I place the basket there.
The meeting, called, "Living Well" group, begins. After Susan briefly shares the news, I address everyone. I explain the circumstances as best I understand them, which contributed to this termination. I mention succinctly the complex interplay of changing government and agency guidelines compounded by economic challenges for the agency. I say, "I am aware that this decision was made with sadness and careful consideration."
As I speak, I am mindful of my intention not to separate from anyone and not to cast anyone as victim or villian. I focus on healing. I focus on connecting.
I mention Dr. King's vision of the Beloved Community, which inspired our program of Healing Community and continues as each of us moves on and expresses this vision. In closing, I ask a client sitting in the back of the room to sing with me what is practically an anthem in many parts of Latin America, "Gracias a la Vida." Thanks to Life. As I speak, Mercedes de la Sosa, the Argentinian folksinger, who made the song famous and was dubbed, "the voice of the silent majority," is herself dying.
Completely willing, this gentle man, a long-term client in this program, sings loudly and with a dignified passion. The room comes alive. We close with an affirmation of living and growing together.
Soon after, clients come over to share hugs and say whatever they need to say. One client pats me on the back and says energetically, "that was the best goodbye I ever heard!"
As clients form a line for lunch, I go from one to the next, the basket in hand, offering this gift and showing them the heart saying, "you can only see it if you hold it up to the light." Their eyes open with a playful glint. We smile. I move on, greeting the next person.
Later that day, I write an email to colleagues. I thank them for the journey we have shared, saying:
"Journeys are endless and gardens need water to grow. Organizations need funds. People need to be sustained in mind/body/spirit. Thank you for continuing to engage creatively, for gathering this precious water and offering it freely. May our garden of Healing Community continue to grow, even as leaves turn. May we always remember that at its center is the tree of life, whose graceful branches and deep roots reach everywhere."
Throughout the next few days, I approach clients, making sure they're aware of the change. Sometimes they approach me. I tell them of changes I have witnessed in them, while affirming their wholehearted determination to keep going simply by showing up in the program. I listen as they voice a range of emotions connecting with stories of regret and disappointment, of no chance to say goodbye, and for many, of connection and gratitude. Most challenging of all, I listen attentively as they tell me how they appreciate what I have offered.
On Friday, I venture outdoors one last time with clients, twenty or so, and James, the new social worker, with whom I set out a week earlier.
Again we walk to the new Highline Park. At the top of the stairs, we look out. I look up and see blue sky and white clouds. Minutes earlier it was overcast and some predicted rain. I pull out a Healing Community card. I say, "Now we are all card-carrying members of Healing Community." I offer cards to anyone who doesn't yet have one. We hold them up to the light.
For a moment I feel choked up. There are tears in my eyes.
I look out again. I see those smiles. Some are disguised as sadness and longing. Even so, as one client after another comes over to embrace, as our tears intermingle, I hear "thank you," "you changed my life," "God bless you." I recognize the smile that is always present. I feel it. This is love, true love.
By 3pm, I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. I pause for a cup of tea. Sitting at my desk, I turn over a card and draw a smiley heart, then another. I place these cards in a basket.
Colleagues surprise me with a brief sendoff with cookies and flowers. Then, I offer the final TranSpirit group for participants in a transgender outreach program.
An hour later, walking out of my office for the last time, I hear the sounds of folks arriving. It's time for a weekly meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, hosted here "after hours."
I place the basket on a counter beside the entrance. I walk one last time to our Healing Community board, which is situated near the entrance and lists this month's theme, "Transitioning." A man walking by says, "hey, how's it going?" With tears in my eyes, I meet his gaze and almost with surprise, find myself smiling. Seeing him seeing me, I feel completely transparent. He smiles, nodding his head as if to say, "I understand." I nod, responding freely in that silence, and move on.