Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pluralism, NYC and Goldwater Memorial Hospital

In the late 80s and early 90s, I was a volunteer chaplain at Goldwater Memorial Hospital in the Protestant chaplaincy. Although I grew up Roman Catholic, at the time I had been received into an Episcopal religious community and was residing with the brothers of the Society of Saint Francis in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn near East New York close to Pennsylvania and Atlantic Avenues.

Goldwater was a unique representation of pluralism that is not as widely known as the City of New York but I wonder how any person, place or thing can be untouched by the diversity of New York. Being a government sponsored hospital, the chaplaincy was broad enough to cover most of the major religious denominations of its patients, many of whom were hospitalized for the duration of their lives for skilled nursing care due to severe injuries and birth defects.

Although my role at Goldwater was that of a volunteer, I was employed by the Sisters of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital which also operated a skilled nursing facility that I worked in on the Avenue of the Americas that provided care for children with severe injuries and birth defects. Goldwater had a God-wing that consisted of its three chapels, the Roman Catholic chapel, a Jewish "chapel" and the Protestant chapel that was staffed by the Guardian of St. Elizabeth's Friary in Bushwick, a member of the Society of Saint Francis, who was English and had once been an Anglican Benedictine at Alton Abbey. My volunteer chaplaincy duties included serving as Deacon during the Sunday Eucharist Service, visiting the sick with Holy Communion and administering Holy Communion for the patients in the City's only secured TB ward for patients that were non-compliant with their medical treatment.

Religions and people themselves were not the only forms of diversity. The illnesses and injuries of the patients were also widely varied. There were residents who from birth had been hospitalized and some who had even been raised in the New York Foundling Hospital who upon turning 18 were relocated to Goldwater. Goldwater sits on Roosevelt Island between Manhattan and Queens and you can travel there by car, bas, subway or sky-tram over the East River.

The hospital is a series of large industrial looking government buildings surrounded by the East River on either side. Off in the distance were the ruins of the TB Asylum, which seemed almost a romantic view in Spring and Summer but quite morbid in the winter. It was always a brutal walk from any of the forms of public transportation. Walking to and from the train or the tram, I often passed other people in religious garb, including many nuns and some Orthodox priests. Sometimes there was a brief nod or wave but as in the hospital itself, pluralism was approached with a sense of respectful boundaries among the various religious folks around.

These were very active days for me, between seminary, the friary and the hospitals. Internally, I was being altered by the environment in many ways. It was my perception that there was deep and untold human suffering hidden on that island, in that hospital and even behind those religious garbs we wore. From the role of mean-maker, I'm not sure that the significance of all that time on Roosevelt Island has been sorted out. 

When my graduate social work assignment came, it was for a practicum at Jersey City Medical Center up the street from Saint Agnes Church. It was more massive than Goldwater and was sat on top of a hill which to me only elevated its bleakness. Time it seemed was bringing the experience to an end and it was shortly after this that I relocated to Florida and all the sun I could handle.