February 5, 2007
The spirit of service
by kim urquhart
When Linda Smith's faith journey led her into the ministry, it seemed like a natural step for the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing instructor. "I'd always believed that nursing is a ministry," says Smith, who recently became Emory's first university chaplain of the United Church of Christ. On Feb. 8, Smith will lead the first meeting of the newest religious affiliate on campus, the United Church of Christ "Comma Connection Group."
Smith says that the group's unusual name is part of a new UCC campaign called "God is Still Speaking." She explains: "Our slogan for our campaign is 'never place a period where God has placed a comma.'"
Smith's vision for her campus ministry at Emory mirrors another UCC motto: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here." The UCC, a relatively young Protestant denomination that came into being in 1957 with the union of the Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian churches, is known for ordaining the first openly gay minister in mainline Protestant ministry and electing the first African American leader of a racially integrated mainline church in the United States. "The whole denomination definitely has a social justice focus, and I hope we can carry that over to the campus ministry," Smith says.
She explains that the Comma Connection Group will focus on three primary areas. "The first is a worship or celebration component that may include prayer, worship service, or some place in our meeting where we will experience the divine." A second component focused on learning spiritual practices," and a third component is social justice, where students will participate in community service.
Smith hopes to get the word out to students who are interested in further exploring their spirituality through the Comma Connection Group, which will meet Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Episcopal House on campus. She expects to start small and grow. "Most campus ministries here, except for the huge denominations, have started one by one and two by two," Smith says, adding that she is pleased the UCC has joined Emory's ample opportunities for enhancing religious life on campus.
As part of Emory's new interdisciplinary certificate program in faith and health, Smith teaches master's level courses for students in nursing, theology and public health. "The main reason for looking at the intersection of faith and health," she explains, "is to look at how religion can be a facilitator, or a barrier, to health." An interdisciplinary perspective also provides students with resources to analyze the way in which religion, health and their respective structures impact persons and communities," she says.
To illustrate how different faith traditions impact patient care, for example, she has taken students to a mosque or to a Buddhist temple to learn firsthand.
Nursing is a ministry, Smith says. "Most folks who go into nursing really have a desire to care for patients not just in technical ways by focusing only on the physical," she says, "but in more holistic ways, caring also for patients' psychological, social and spiritual needs."
There are different types of spiritual care, which Smith defines as "the act of meaningful connections with patients, creating meaning and comfort in patient care." She often asks her nursing students: "When did you provide spiritual care this week?" At first they are quiet. "Then we'll talk more and they will share about how they sat down with a patient who was tearful and listened, truly listened," she said. "Sometimes just the whole act of giving a bath can be a holy experience, if one is slow and intentional about bathing somebody in warm water."
In a show of support, several nursing faculty attended Smith's ordination ceremony as a United Church of Christ minister last month. Smith is already enjoying her dual role. "To be able to bring my studies in nursing and theology together has been a real gift," she says.
Like many other men and women of the cloth, Smith felt called to ministry. "For me it wasn't like a burning bush, it was more of a slow process of my own faith formation and developing a closer relationship to God myself," she recalls. "I felt a desire to serve where spirituality and faith were more central to my service."
Smith had spent more than 20 years as a nurse, many of them as executive director of a program in Florida that assisted nurses with substance abuse or mental health problems.
"I found that there was a tremendous amount of spiritual needs in the nurses that I worked with," she says. "When someone is in the throes of addictive disease, they sometimes do things that are against their values and it chips away at their sense of self." She often found herself in conversations about God with nurses wondering "where was God in their illness?"
Smith herself had always been "a seeker," first as a child raised in the Catholic tradition, playing guitar in the youth group. By age 16 she was serving as a Candy Striper, and later she was "serving God as a nurse."
As her personal faith grew, Smith enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary, which was affiliated with the United Church of Christ and served as her introduction to the denomination. In addition to her studies, she worked as a chaplain at the University of Chicago hospital.
"That's when I really felt a calling: working with patients at the bedside, not as a nurse but as a chaplain," she recalls. "That was a difficult transition, because as a nurse I was used to doing things all the time. To be with somebody in their suffering and their pain, while just sitting and listening to their fears and their questions, took a lot of prayer and practice for me to be able to feel comfortable."
To continue her studies, Smith transferred to Emory. She earned a Master in Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2004, and soon found a teaching post in the nursing school. She joined Emory's religious life staff last year.
At home, Smith is actively involved in the Central Congregation United Church of Christ on nearby Clairmont Road, and enjoys playing golf and walking. Many of those walks are taken with her pint-sized companion, a Yorkshire Terrier named Tory.
"Tory has taught me a lot about spirituality," Smith says. "When we walk Tory will sit down on the grass, look around, while feeling the breeze in her face, so I'll stop and sit down with her on the grass while looking around and feeling the air. She's taught me a lot about simply being."