Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Building Faith in the Power of The Conversation

by Rev. Rosemary Lloyd

When the senior minister of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts, Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor, began her sermon one Sunday morning she raised a lot of eyebrows.

“Mary,” she began, “you are going to die.” She started pointing out people in the church and telling them that they are going to die. Young and old, men and women, she called out congregants by name and reminded them that death is not a dirty secret; it’s a fact of life. Her sermon continued, weaving in humor to diffuse the tension and ultimately generating chuckles and nods of understanding from the crowd.

“These days, people often don’t have an extended family, or grandchildren who live nearby to care for them,” says Taylor. “To fill that gap, we try to be each other’s family and help them formulate a plan. I am there to guide ‘my family’ through baptisms, confirmations and weddings, so it’s also my duty to help them transition to the next life.”

The idea for this sermon was inspired by The Conversation Project, a nonprofit organization with the mission to ensure that everyone’s wishes for end-of-life care are expressed and respected. Founded by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ellen Goodman, The Conversation Project reaches out to people where they live, work, pray and gather, to encourage values-led conversations about a topic that touches every human life: how we want to be cared for in our final days. While 90 percent of Americans say they believe they should talk about their wishes for care, only 30 percent actually do it.

Health care providers increasingly are recognizing the influence community clergy have on health care decision making. Reaching out and inviting clergy into conversation with palliative care teams and asking them to preach on the importance of expressing one’s wishes for care at the end of life may lead to more of our wishes being respected.

Rev. Scott Johnson, a chaplain with the Advanced Illness Management team St. Charles Health System in Bend, Oregon made the connection. “We aim to support people to have the courage and compassion to talk about living as well as dying. Faith communities that advocate these conversations are our partners in health. They can help people understand that these critical conversations are about what matters about living.” That perspective is what motivated Johnson to invite dozens of clergy and lay leaders to a lunch and learn event about St. Charles’ palliative care services and The Conversation Project.

Plan Ahead for Conversation Sabbath - Nov 11-20, 2016

Recognizing that congregations are ready-made communities where people address challenging topics, The Conversation Project is spreading its faith-engagement campaign, Conversation Sabbath, November 11-20, 2016. The simple idea is to invite clergy to preach or teach on the vital importance of having critical conversations about one’s wishes of end-of-life care, and sharing them with loved ones and clinicians. We’re reaching out to clergy through a national network of allies from California to Virginia, Texas to Wisconsin, because we think that hearing a supportive message from their religious leaders will motivate people to break the ice and engage in meaningful exchanges about what kind of care they would want in the event that they cannot speak for themselves. Imagine more people having The Conversation sooner rather than later, in a familiar setting like around the kitchen table instead of waiting until there is medical crisis in the ICU.

The Conversation Sabbath campaign was launched last year in Greater Boston where more than 30 area clergy gave sermons on the importance of having these crucial and tender conversations. Some congregations hosted book discussion groups. Others offered workshops and distributed the Conversation Starter Kit, a free, downloadable step-by-step guide that helps people have The Conversation about their preferences for end-of-life care.

“Community clergy who preach during Conversation Sabbath—or any time of year—about the importance of talking about the kind of care they want—or don’t want--will create a ripple effect, helping make these more natural conversations to have throughout the life cycle,” notes Rev. Johnson.

Clergy see too often how avoiding these conversations can leave family members in the dark or cause arguments and strife at the bedside. That is one of the reasons Rabbi Neil Hirsch of Hevreh, a reform synagogue in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts, has brought this topic to his synagogue. “We tend to have an increasing awareness of our mortality as we age, or of the generation ahead of us. But it is a powerful spiritual awareness to cultivate at any age.” Through his partnership with The Conversation Project, he has made sure that he has clarity around his parent’s wishes for end-of-life care, as well as his own.

“We don’t have to speak in euphemisms about something so natural and inevitable,” says Rabbi Hirsch. “Death can be addressed thoughtfully and inspire people to live more fully in the moment.” He says this topic is important to Hevreh’s congregants because so many are caregivers for parents and loved ones.

Suheil Laher, an Islamic scholar and a former Muslim Chaplain at MIT says that having conversations is a way to prepare for the end of life. While modern medical culture has moved death out of view, the teachings of Allah inspire thinking about and preparing for death, spiritually and realistically.

“In Islam we are taught to have balance and be realistic about recovery from an illness and also the inevitability of death,” says Dr. Laher. “We are also advised to think of death often in order to keep ourselves in check and eliminate regret, which we could then take into our next life. There is still a lot of work to be done to normalize this conversation.”

To date nearly 300,000 people, from all 50 states and 176 countries, have downloaded The Conversation Project’s starter kit and more than 500,000 people have visited The Conversation Project website since its 2012 launch. For more information visit theconversationproject.org or register for Conversation Sabbath.

Rosemary Lloyd, BSN, MDiv, is the Advisor to Faith Communities for The Conversation Project. A former nurse and Unitarian Universalist minister, she is a champion for embracing the reality of our mortality as a spiritual practice for cultivating courage, compassion, and loving life.

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