Emory Report
February 23, 2009
Volume 61, Number 21



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February 23
, 2009
Growing spiritual health

By Carol Clark

In many ways, George Grant’s upbringing in Aiken, S.C., shaped him for his role as director of research and innovation for Emory Healthcare’s Emory Center for Pastoral Services.

Grant’s father was a civil rights trial attorney, whose clients were poor and disenfranchised. Sometimes he was paid with a bucket of peaches or tomatoes. His law firm was always full of people waiting to see him. “My father taught me how to listen to people in crisis, and to advocate for them,” Grant says. “He had a strong sense of caring and justice.”

People would even knock at the door of their family home, seeking help. African American lawyers would gather in the kitchen some evenings to discuss civil rights strategies, meeting secretly due to the lingering tensions in the South of the 1960s.

Grant was 14 when his father died of an aneurysm. “I remember going into a big hospital waiting room and a doctor coming down a long hallway, shaking his head,” he recalls. His mother cried out and Grant started sobbing. “This was a time when grief and sadness were not tolerated in health care,” he says. “A nurse came and gave me an injection. The next thing I knew, I woke up in my bedroom and there were about 100 people in the house. My father was quite a public figure.”

Crying no longer seemed like an option to Grant. Instead, he “stayed strong” for his mother and younger sister. At South Carolina’s Wofford College, Grant majored in religion, while also studying theater and music. He then entered Candler School of Theology. “I thought it was a good way to keep learning about me,” he explains. While studying, he sang professionally, in clubs and churches, and wrestled with what to do with his life.

“I was really struggling,” Grant says, explaining why he sought help from a pastoral psycho-therapist. The counseling changed his course. “Instead of seeking my love in performance and accolades, I began to find solidity within me,” Grant says. He also realized that pastoral psycho-therapy was a good career fit for him.
He did a hospital chaplain residency at Emory — helping people deal with the trauma of illness and death. “A person who is in crisis is not necessarily wanting a solution, but they do desire a companion who will allow them freedom to express their pain,” he says. “When a person feels free, they feel held and respected and honored.”

An important part of his training was to finally embrace the pain of losing his father. “It’s hard work to explore the depths of your own suffering, but it can become your greatest asset,” he explains. “You become more comfortable and confident in your own life, and less liable to let anxiety get in the way of listening to someone else.”

The process never ends for those working in spiritual care, he adds. “When you take in the pain and suffering of other people, it has to go somewhere. You can’t just put it on a shelf — you have to integrate it within yourself.”

Grant was ordained as a Methodist minister and served as a parish clergy in rural South Carolina. He became a certified psycho-therapist, and held clinical and administrative positions around the country. In 2007, he returned to Emory with his wife, Susan. (The couple met when he was a student at Candler and she was a nurse at Emory University Hospital. Susan Grant is now chief nursing officer for Emory Healthcare.)

In addition to working with hospital chaplains, Grant chairs the research effort of the University’s Religion and Public Health Collaborative, which fosters interdisciplinary work to understand the role of spirituality in health. Emory is involved in groundbreaking studies in this area, such as the effects of compassion meditation and mindfulness meditation on depression and other illnesses.

“I feel privileged to work at the intersection of health care, psychology and spirituality,” Grant says. “Emory is doing translational research that will influence how we treat patients at the bedside. We’re trying to measure things that are supposedly intangible, but nevertheless powerful in terms of healing.”

Earlier this month, Grant chaired the 2009 summit of the organization Spiritual Care Collaborative, which brought together professionals from around the globe taking an interdisciplinary approach to pastoral and spiritual care, counseling, education and research.