Bernard Richardson is the new chaplain at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Credit: Gabor Degre

A year after people protested the elimination of its chaplaincy program, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center has hired the Rev. J. Bernard Richardson as head chaplain and director of Chaplain Services.

Richardson will work with Bangor area clergy to meet the spiritual needs of patients, their families and staff. He also will create a new program to be accredited by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, located in Decatur, Georgia. Once that happens, Richardson will oversee resident interns who want to become chaplains. The program will be open to lay people, ordained ministers and deacons, and students seeking to become ordained pastors.

The previous chaplaincy training program was not accredited. The Rev. Rex Garrett, who was the full-time paid chaplain at EMMC for more than 30 years, taught at Bangor Theological Seminary and offered a chaplaincy training program until the United Church of Christ seminary closed in 2013. He also worked with students at Grace Evangelical Seminary in Bangor from its founding in 2001 until Garrett’s retirement last year.

[EMMC draws protests for ending paid chaplains]

For the past year, Bangor area clergy have volunteered at EMMC to meet the spiritual needs of patients, their families and staff, but there has been no one chaplain to whom they could turn who was part of a health care team.

In the news release announcing his appointment, Richardson described a chaplain’s job as “creating a sacred space for people of all faiths and cultural beliefs in stressful, life-changing, or transitional moments to find meaning, hope, connection, and comfort by enabling them to identify and draw upon their own sources of inner strength. I appreciate the opportunity to be working with the medical center and across the community to offer clinical pastoral education and expand the spiritual care offerings for our patients, families, and care team.”

Once Richardson secures certification for the program next year, EMMC will be the only hospital north of Portland offering credits toward chaplaincy certification. Maine Medical Center offers a program from January to April and another over the summer, according to information on its website.

The number of students who could enroll and whether the program would be year-round has not yet been determined. Richardson expects it to attract students from throughout the country.

When the program is up and running, the students will act as chaplains-in-training and be available in the hospital for patients, their families and staff, according to Richardson. The new chaplain said he did not yet know if he would hire part-time chaplains, as his predecessor did, or how large his staff might grow.

“The department is evolving,” he said.

Richardson said that until the chaplaincy program is accredited and there are students enrolled in it, he would continue to rely on volunteer clergy in the Bangor area who work in an on-call capacity, as they have done for the past year. Once the program is in operation, there most likely will be less of a delay from the time a chaplain or clergy member is requested and the time the person arrives.

The Rev. Apolinary Kavishe, a priest with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, is assigned to Northern Light EMMC and is the chaplain who serves hospitalized Catholics at the Bangor trauma center. A different priest is assigned to St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor. Local rabbis and imams attend to the needs of Jewish and Muslim patients, respectively.

Information about Richardson’s salary or his department’s budget is not public information, according to Tricia Denham, director of communications and marketing.

The elimination of a paid full-time and two part-time chaplains in mid-September 2017 drew a small group of picketers outside the medical center, and an uproar among clergy in northern and Down East Maine. The decision was made without input from members of the board of trustees, the Chaplain’s Advisory Council or community members, sources said last year. Within a month, that decision was reversed and EMMC leadership and Bangor ministers began a dialogue that led to the announcement last week of Richardson’s appointment and the creation of the new program.

“Over the past year we have received valuable input from our Board of Trustees, staff, the Chaplain’s Advisory Council, and members of the communities we serve,” said John Simpson, chairman of Northern Light EMMC’s board of trustees. “Chaplaincy services are of critical importance to our patients, families and care providers.”

The Rev. James Haddix, a retired Congregational minister who last year criticized the decision to eliminate a full-time chaplain, said last week that EMMC’s announcement “certainly does represent a significant change in strategy and institutional structure.”

Haddix is a member of the Chaplain’s Advisory Committee and was a member of the hiring committee that recommended Richardson for the job. He said that area clergy, board members, staff and community members had long conversations about how essential the role of chaplain is in a health care team.

“Chaplains are a vital part of the health care team,” he said. “They sometimes are able to learn information from patients and their families they might not share with doctors and nurses that turns out to be important in treatment.”

Chaplains also help nonreligious families unprepared for the sudden loss of a loved one deal with funeral homes, death certificates, service planning, notifications to employers and insurance companies.

Richardson was born in White Plains, New York, but grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He described his religious upbringing as “interdenominational — Pentecostal and Ethiopian Orthodox.”

“Church life has always been a part of my life,” Richardson said last week. “I pastored two congregations over 20 years in New York and Connecticut, but [clinical pastoral education] was so transformational for me that it prompted my vocation in the health care environment.”

Richardson said that through a chaplaincy training program, he learned to meet people where they are and to make visits about their faith, not his own.

“I do that by allowing them to inform me about what’s meaningful for them what gives them strength, where hope is for them,” Richardson said. “Sometimes that’s in religion. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s family. Sometimes it’s the cat or the dog, but I allow the patient to be the educator.”

As an example, Richardson said that he worked with a man in his 20s whose diabetes could not be controlled easily. Over the course of treatment, he lost both legs to the disease.

“There came a time when he was real combative with the staff and his mother, but he wouldn’t talk about it with anybody,” Richardson said. “He talked about how much he missed his cat and wanted to see his cat. But the hospital had a policy of no animals unless a patient was in animal care therapy.

“So, we had his mother make a video of his cat just sitting on the couch,” the chaplain said. “The cat wasn’t doing anything special. This was about a five-minute video of the cat just sitting there looking back at the camera. But having that changed his behavior. It changed his disposition. It changed his demeanor. And, it just gave me the message that sometimes the things that we think provide the most meaning to someone could be off. It wasn’t religion he was looking for. It was his cat.”

Richardson described his new job at Northern Light EMMC as the natural evolution of his professional development as a chaplain.

“As an educator, my aspiration has always been to work more in tandem with the administration in how we carry out spiritual care and health care,” he said. “What drew me to EMMC was their commitment to patient-centered care, and the people have been extremely pleasant and welcoming.”

Richardson holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from State University of New York, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Christ Theological Seminary in New York City. He completed chaplaincy certification at Yale New Haven Health System-Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut.

Most recently, Richardson served as senior chaplain and a certified pastoral educator at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, where he oversaw the clinical pastoral education. He also was director of admissions for the program at Bayview and the Johns Hopkins academic medicine division program.

Richardson is twice divorced and the father of five children.

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