Chaplain: @Home in a Crisis — An Attitude of Hospitality for Crisis Chaplaincy by Sandy Harris SB / Rev. Khalila RedBird 7 December 2011 for Cherry Hill Seminary: Survey of Chaplaincy Fall 2011

When I first encountered the Goddess in the Sacred Grove, my High Priest of the time knelt before Her in praise and adoration. I threw myself into Her lap and said, “Hi, Mom! I’m home!”

How wonderful it would be if we could carry this sense of being at Home with us in our ministry and act from within its support – far better still, we could welcome others in need to make themselves at Home for a while, sheltered in our ministry of presence.

Home is where one starts from.

– T. S. Eliot

I am a Chaplain – by choice, by training, and by intermittently being called to serve in that capacity by organizations that are minimally inclined to pay for such services. Most of my ministry has been in the wake of crisis or trauma for the people I encounter – so far, in hospitals, and in the future, as part of crisis response teams for the county in which I live.

Stepping into a crisis or traumatic situation as a chaplain, I need to be “all prayed up”, as my colleagues say, when I arrive, and I need to release the clinging threads of concern back into the Cosmos when I leave. This protects my own well-being and allows me to function in the moment with all the spiritual support available to me. I project – assume – really think that a similar need and resolution is common to most of us involved in chaplaincy for any period of time.

Given the extreme diversity of our Pagan community, I am not sure that we share common language and particular ritual elements supporting these needs and I have found it cumbersome to caveat and tiptoe when trying to discuss these spiritual practices in an eclectic group. Therefore, I propose a model for our collective attitudes toward chaplaincy and interacting with the people we serve that relies on a heritage older and more deeply embedded in the human spirit than our various traditions (however ancient and venerable) and modern language.

I propose encouraging a mystical and magical mindset of chaplaincy in which the chapel is the chaplain’s own state of being grounded, centered, and in the Presence of Ultimate Reality, the All, the One, the Ground of Being, or however the chaplain personally conceives of That Which Is most important and most sacred – wherever the chaplain is at Home.

I suggest that, conscious of being at Home, we align ourselves with ancient customs and standards of Hospitality as we find them throughout human cultures and consider ourselves as Host in our Home, holding each person we serve as a welcome Guest in our Home, with the intent that our words, actions, and demeanor will convey to our Guests the comfort of safety and sufficiency that are the epitome of being at home.

At the same time, it is important to remember that others offer us hospitality and we incur the obligations of a Guest when, acknowledging our presence as chaplains, people in need admit us into their lives through sharing troubles, fears, and times of great significance, into places where a stranger might not be invited.

Heritage, Needs, and Skills

The code of hospitality is an ancient code common to just about every ancient culture and moral code.
What it states basically is that anyone who comes to your home, invited or uninvited, should be treated with the utmost respect, provided food, comfort and basically be treated like family and once the guest’s immediate needs are met, the guest then had the right to ask for a favor to help him on his journey. Turning away someone’s request for shelter or mistreating a guest was a terrible, shameful act, worthy of severe punishment by the Gods.
The flip side of that is that anyone who visits another’s home must treat their hosts with similar respect. Stealing from your hosts, damaging their home, causing injury to them or other guests are all severe violations of the code of hospitality, equally deserving of divine justice. Guests were expected to treat their hosts’ homes like their own and to be helpful when they could and to move on as soon as it was convenient for them to do so.


Hospitality: Our Common Heritage

All of our skills and intentions are of little use unless and until we can enter into a mutually-acceptable relationship and communication with the person we are endeavoring to serve. Particularly in times of recent or imminent danger, our presence and interactions must be accepted as safe – or at least worth the risk of tentative trust – if we are to be of use. A chaplain whose demeanor or dress or actions are perceived as a threat may find it impossible to achieve any level of rapport with someone who is already aroused to fight or flee.

Home is where the heart is.

First attributed usage by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE)

Drawing upon our common heritage of ancient codes of hospitality that we acquire with our earliest training and find reinforced in practice throughout our lives, we have a vocabulary for establishing tentative rapport even in the midst of crisis when rational thought and detailed memory are out of reach. Fortunately, most of us have had the experience of meeting strangers in our lives, initially in the safety of our earliest homes under the protection of a parent or benevolent elder.

We have lived through overcoming the urge to flee and reinforced the lessons of hospitality: a guest is to be welcomed, introduced respectfully to others present, offered a beverage, told where the bathroom is, and invited to sit down. Making a guest at home comes before questions, requests, and serious discussion.

Crisis: Our Common Needs

In the midst of disaster and chaos and fear, a tiny, quivering voice afraid of being heard says, “I want to go home.”

Sometimes the expression of fight-or-flight, when neither response to stress is feasible, is an unspoken “I want to go home!” Once the instant of surging neurotransmitters has passed, returning cognitive functions can assess the situation and weigh alternatives, but, for that frozen moment, we would rather be someplace else – someplace safe.

As chaplains, we can find ourselves in such frozen moments with such unspoken primal wishes. With practice at coming home to ourselves and carrying that home with us, we can be ready to find and carry that sense of being at home with us in crisis as the chapel we bring to the place of need.

@Home: Our Common Skills

Frustrated with my tendency to lose focus – and touches – in competition when my tactics weren’t working, my fencing coach asked me if, being a Witch, I knew how to ground and center. When I said I did, he told me to practice that until I could do it in the space of a deep breath – then do it! Do it between the halt! that ends one touch and the fence! that begins the next encounter. I did. It works. ctrl-alt-del does the same for my laptop.

In many of our traditions, as well as in the martial arts, we learn to return our bodies, minds, and spirits to a known and balanced point, independent of time and space, between excursions and experiences.

I suggest that we can hone that practice into a tool that is always with us so that, when moving between chaos and confusion, we can always return to that place I call @home. When we are @home, we are in control of our attention, balanced, stable, relaxed, breathing freely, aware of all that supports us, and full ourselves. Once @home, we can choose to open our awareness to our surroundings.

Home is a shelter from storms – all sorts of storms. 

~William J. Bennett

At Home as Host and as Guest

When it came time to terminate medical intervention and let his final illness run its course, all Dad could tell me was, “I want to go home.” For a man who denied the embrace of any religion and would argue definitions if asked about spirituality, Home had a deeper personal importance and meaning than the place where I live when I’m not in the hospital (he had had no such place for months). When we placed him gently in a borrowed hospital bed in the middle of my living room, he was comforted and content: he was Home.

Making Ourselves @Home

Any number of Paganism 101 books provide instructions and meditations for grounding and centering, and many of us are quite accustomed to doing so. I have included a separate document for reference: a treatise on the subject that I presented to a Clinical Pastoral Education group in 2008.

Once comfortably grounded and centered, I suggest we open our attention to home, surrounding ourselves with all the sights, sounds, smells, and impressions of home at its best – whether our childhood home, our beloved home now, or an idealized home of our imagination. Taking time to visit and revisit home in unhurried meditation will bring it more quickly to mind in a crisis.

Even if the home of your childhood was of more danger than refuge to you, form this home of your best memories, until its existence is solid and you can pull it around you at will.

There is a magic in that little world, home; it is a mystic circle that surrounds comforts and virtues never known beyond its hallowed limits.

– Robert Southey (English Poet and Writer of prose. 1774-1843)

Find a mnemonic or trigger for yourself that will invoke your feeling of being grounded, centered, and at home (@home). You may think of the great ideas from cinema:

ET phone home

Click your heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” (Ruby slippers are optional.)

Choose whatever signal will work best for you to start grounding, centering, and making yourself @home. Then practice. Do it every time something startles you. Do it in the dentist’s chair. Do it at traffic lights. Do it when you feel out of sorts. Practice. Your body will thank you.

Receiving a Guest in a Crisis

In a crisis, the first individuals likely to need our help are those who are in the primal state that, at once, prepares us to fight or flee and, concurrently, protects us from seeing or feeling more than we can accommodate at the moment. This state can follow immediately upon learning of a loved one’s death or peril – or hearing shots fired nearby – or when your telephone wakes you from a sound sleep at 3 a.m.

Neurophysiologically, the logical and higher functions of the brain have been bypassed in the interest of fueling the primitive portions of your brain and your body systems that are needed to fight or to run away. Often this state passes quickly and your higher functions return for use. Until that happens, nothing else does.

As chaplains in crisis situations, we are susceptible to this shock as much as anyone. If we can grasp that one small trigger for @home, we will take the first steps toward returning to useful function and protect ourselves from the cascades of hormones where they do more harm than good. Once @home, we are in control of our steps in venturing forth. Our concern is with the survivors of the crisis, leaving the matters of rescue and response to others. We have built a small bubble of safe space for ourselves, and we can expand its peace to shelter guests.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

– Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man (1914)

The disasters of the past decade have spawned research into the human neurophysiological and psychological reaction to trauma, and effective methods are now being widely taught to first responders to help survivors through the immediate shock toward a return to independent functioning and eventual healing in the hope of forestalling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Training is available, in classrooms and on line, and a chaplain who is a first responder will seek the opportunity for training.

Assess the situation

In a crisis, others around you will be the state of physical and emotional shock that is our human response to the totally unacceptable: frozen in place with bodies primed to fight or flee, higher cognitive functions – any useful thinking – cut off and unavailable. As a chaplain, if you can, find a quiet location, apart from the crisis scene, with places to sit and the necessities of life at hand. Your role as host, bringing @home with you, is to welcome each person in need as a guest in your home and, through hospitality, help your guests until each can find a way to continue to the journey. Here and now, your home is safe space for you and your guests. Make it so.

The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) bases its intervention with individuals on the SAFER-R model developed by George Everly1. The steps of this model have much in common with welcoming a stranger in distress as a guest into one’s home and providing hospitality until the guest is ready and able to leave. As a chaplain@home, remembering your role and duties as host can provide comfort and protection in a crisis as you and others address the immediate and specific needs of your guests.

S Stabilize
A Acknowledge
F Facilitate understanding
E Encourage adaptive grieving and coping
R Recovery
– or
R Referral


First of all, see to it that you and your guests are safe and will remain as safe as possible from bodily harm and exposure to physical or nonphysical threats.

Begin building rapport while helping your guests to achieve some level of grounding and centering of their own: make your guests @home.

Greet your guests as welcome strangers in your home, calling your guests in shock back toward higher cognitive functioning through your own confidence in the safe space, speaking slowly and calmly, offering opportunities and cues to automatic responses: making eye contact, acknowledging your greeting. Hear them where they are and welcome them to be, to be here, to be here now – essentially facilitating their tentative grounding and centering to the point where simple speech is possible.

Introduce yourself clearly and simply. Learn and use their names. Tell your guests what is most important: We are together. You are in a safe place. Remind them of their personal safety, of time, of place, of who else is present. Perhaps a more-stable guest will help introduce one who is not. Repeat yourself as necessary: in shock, much that is heard is filtered out or forgotten immediately.

Home is indeed a place where you are loved unconditionally. Home is where you feel safe and protected.  Home is where your heart is most happy.

– Tanya.Blank

Make your guests at home: Offer seating and water, if possible. Reduce distractions. Ask simple questions that can be answered simply. Monitor their physical well-being: injuries, hyperventilating, hunger, fatigue, thirst, medical conditions and seek help if necessary. Point out the nearest restrooms. Gently divert any conversation to the here-and-now within your home. Ask no other questions but listen to what is said.


Give your guests a chance to tell their stories and to test your listening and acceptance.

Open simple social conversation with and about the people present at the moment, accepting that this will focus quickly on the crisis or trauma. Your intent is build safety and rapport while people are beginning to face their immediate memories and regain their ability to speak calmly and rationally. Use your best active listening skills and maintain your own awareness of your Sources of support. Tell them what you do know: This happened. There is much we do not know yet. You/we are safe here. Help is coming. We are doing what needs to be done here and now.

Facilitate understanding

Allow the conversation to grow deeper, contributing your own information and reflections. Encourage interaction among guests.

Answer questions simply and clearly confirming what just happened and what is happening at the moment, without speculation and without volunteering or encouraging additional detail. Keep focus on the here-and-now, redirecting when conversation strays to the past or future – or to why, how, and what-if. Listen to the question and the fears behind the question; in answering, reframe them as simple truth – without judgment. Welcome periods of silence. Tell them what you do know: What you are feeling (experiencing) is normal. This hurts. What you are saying is normal (helpful) (reasonable). This is a safe place. Everyone grieves (reacts) differently.

Encourage adaptive coping

Gently release the reins of the conversation and return to listening. Reflect on what you have heard so far. Expand on a topic with helpful information if appropriate. Enjoy watching your guests take up the reins of the conversation and, with them, control of their lives.

Home is the one place in all this world where hearts are sure of each other.  It is the place of confidence.  It is the place where we tear off that mask of guarded and suspicious coldness which the world forces us to wear in self-defense, and where we pour out the unreserved communications of full and confiding hearts.  It is the spot where expressions of tenderness gush out without any sensation of awkwardness and without any dread of ridicule.

~Frederick W. Robertson

Eventually, people, one by one, may come to the point of sharing memories with each other, finding bits of humor, telling stories, and purposeful planning. This is the time to sit back, centered and mindful, affirming the healing parts and gently questioning the speculations or intentions that might hamper healing. This is also a time to offer suggestions and information on further help that is available.

Resume life or Refer for continued care if needed

See your guests to the door with your blessings, as well refreshed as was within your power. If someone needs more help, do all you can to put them in the hands of that help.

When help becomes available, or when other matters intrude, your guests will leave on their own. When all have gone and at least before leaving the scene of the crisis, sit quietly with yourself @home and let any misgivings you have rise up for attention. You will never know all the details of why the crisis happened or how everyone else responded in its wake – leave the questions in sacred space or ground them – they are no longer yours to carry. For concerns you cannot ground or leave behind, find someone on scene to follow up. Someone in pain may need follow-up care: share your misgivings with a professional on scene. If you need help yourself, ask for it.

The winding path

This intervention process is iterative – you may find your guests slipping back into shock, and needing your help to stabilize and move forward again, even multiple times.

May Peace be with you, all Love surround you,
and the good Light within you guide you
all the way Home.

Accepting Hospitality

It was disconcerting at first, as I paid a chaplain’s call on an elderly woman in her hospital room, to be greeted from the bed, offered a chair, and asked if I would like a drink of water or something – from whatever beverages were at hand. I accepted the chair and declined the beverage, feeling somewhat unbalanced, as if roles had been reversed. They had. I was being received as a guest in her home. Through all the intrusions on personal space and autonomy, the lady held firm to her training as a hostess and staked out her room as home.

As we become sensitive to our roles as hosts in crisis chaplaincy, we may begin to notice the ways in which we are being received as guests in the lives of those to whom we offer hospitality. They offer us a place, however temporary, in their lives at times when their homes are in disarray and the family’s dirty linen is hung in the living room. They welcome us based on little more than our identification as chaplains, exposing vulnerabilities we are trusted to protect.

This is an area for more reflection and mindfulness as we encounter others in crisis on our journeys.

Hindsight and Foresight

There is nothing like a crisis to point out the information we wish we had had and the training we with we had taken.

Crisis response training
Psychological First Aid – free online traininghttp://learn.nctsn.org/course/view.php?id=38
ICISF Individual Crisis Intervention and Peer Support classroom traininghttp://www.icisf.org/education-a-training/course-descriptions/121-individual-crisis-intervention-and-peer-support-
ICISF Pastoral Crisis Intervention classroom traininghttp://www.icisf.org/education-a-training/course-descriptions/116-pastoral-crisis-intervention-


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1George S. Everly, Jr.,, Rob Dewey, Glenn Calkins, Thomas Webb, George Grimm, and Ed Stauffer. Pastoral Crisis Intervention Course Workbook. Elicott City, MD: International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc., 2002. www.icisf.org.