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Creating a Multi-Faith Worship Space in a Small Urban Hospital

by Sarah Spieldenner BCC

APC Forum, April 2019, Vol. 20 No. 2

View of the multi-faith chapel from entrance.

What is a director of spiritual care to do when she must create a new hospital worship space with a $100,000 grant from a kind Catholic benefactor?

The administration of our urban stand-alone, safety-net hospital, which on a given day cares for about 275 in-patients, was in agreement with me, as Director of the Spiritual Care Department at The Brooklyn Hospital Center, that we could not create an airport lounge-like worship space out of a desire not to offend.  One administrator claimed, “That’s not us.”  Even though we knew a multi-faith chapel could not possibly suit the religious needs of everyone, we decided to try to be as inclusive as we could.  We already had a small, quiet, if somewhat dingy multi-faith chapel that was most heavily used by staff, and less so by patients or families.  
The administration hired an architect to design a new space where the chapel existed already, but the new space would expand to almost 600 square feet, taking over two adjacent offices.  A tiny volunteer office and two storage spaces would increase the square footage even further.  I was to choose the iconography, and to name the space requirements, such as that we would need a qibla on the wall that marks the direction of Mecca, in which Muslims pray.  One of many focal points in the new space would certainly be a fairly large stained glass depicting the story of the Good Samaritan, which had been made for us and donated in 1986.  The central image in the glass had been the logo of the hospital in more Christo-centric times, reflecting the similarity between the story of the Good Samaritan and the story of the founding of our hospital in 1845.
I soon discovered that I needed to represent different religions not equally but proportionally.  Since Muslim staff used the space most regularly, they needed a great deal of space, especially for Friday Jumaa prayer.  A few Muslim women had mentioned to me that it was difficult for them to pray in a public space because it is not considered modest to be seen by men while they are praying on their knees.  Therefore about half of the chapel space was dedicated to meeting the needs of Muslim worshippers as best we could.  A qibla was created, there were no depictions of humans or animals in that section, and a retractable, slightly diaphanous curtain that did not go quite all the way to the floor was hung to try to protect women’s modesty.  Space for prayer rugs and shoes was built into the wall.  Unfortunately, it was neither practical nor possible to install a wudhu washing station. 
Since we needed a qibla, I decided that we would embed one icon for each Abrahamic religion in the walls; the architect suggested that they be made of inlaid glass tiles. Therefore, on one wall there is a qibla, on another a cross, and on a third a Star of David.  Next to the cross, we placed a colorful crucifix and a statue of Mary.  I wanted also to have an image of Ganesh for the many Hindu staff in the hospital.  On a wall near the door we hung framed Buddhist images that we saved from the previous chapel. I knew we would need to embed the icons into the walls and cover them with plexiglass, so that no one could easily vandalize them. If these images were going to be embedded in the wall, then they needed to be lit from inside with LED lights, each image with its own light switch.  If any images didn’t suit worshippers, the lights could be turned off. We even installed retractable curtains to cover the images completely, if so desired. (I had imagined little curtains over each icon, but the architect misheard me and designed curtains to cover entire walls!)
My desire to make it possible to keep the icons safe and to be able to make them invisible to those who did not recognize them as part of their faith traditions led to a happy accident.  When the qibla, the Star of David, the Cross, and the imbedded religious icons and stained glass are all lit, there is no need for any harsh ceiling lighting, and the multi-faith nature of the worship space, in all its imperfection, is made clear.  The result is a warm, peaceful, inviting space, that one only has to peek into as one passes it to know all are welcome.  The best compliment it has received is “It doesn’t feel like a hospital in there.”



Chaplain Sarah Spieldenner, BCC was an English teacher for 31 years. She became the Director of Spiritual Care at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in 2014.