Michael Gelfant’s worst call came just after 10 p.m. on a Friday in March of 2012. Gelfant, a Catholic priest at Blessed Trinity Parish in southern Queens, New York, put on his collar and black vestments, got in his car and drove toward the Bedford Avenue subway stop, cursing the traffic that was slowing him down. When he arrived, he saw a young man pinned from the stomach down by a train to the side of the platform, still alive but badly injured.
News outlets would later report that the man had gotten into a fight with an unknown attacker and fallen onto the tracks, where an L train struck him as it pulled into the station. All Gelfant, a volunteer chaplain for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, knew was that there had been a 12-9, a human-train collision.
A team of six firefighters was racing against time to extract the man, inflating stacks of heavy-duty airbags underneath the train in an attempt to push it on its side. As soon as it was lifted, the man would bleed out. Catching a glimpse of a rosary dangling from the man’s wrist, Gelfant took it upon himself to perform one of the Catholic last rites. As the man was being pulled from the tracks and loaded onto a stretcher, Gelfant, reciting a prayer, reached out and dabbed a drop of oil onto his hand.
Days later, the man’s mother called Gelfant from her son’s wake in Queens. She had one question for the chaplain who was present just before her son took his last breaths: had he administered the last rite? Gelfant assured her that he had. “Okay. Then I can let him go now,” she told him.
Gelfant, who is 44 and speaks with a Brooklyn cadence, is normally quick to laugh; his boyish face seems perpetually on the verge of a smile. But he paused for several seconds, recalling the story in his parish office seven years later. “I needed a vacation after that.”
He didn’t take one. He showed up at the next 12-9, and the one after that. For Gelfant and dozens of other religious leaders who volunteer as chaplains in New York's metropolitan transit system, working on 12-9s is a spiritual calling—not only to help the families of the deceased, but to also counsel the train operators confronted with the horror, fragility of life, and sometimes guilt when an 82,000-pound subway train slams into the body of a human being.
This demand for spiritual care in 2021 may seem surprising; religious belief is in decline across the U.S., and clinical therapy is becoming more widely available and increasingly destigmatized. But in secular institutions around the country—from the New York metropolitan transit system to universities, labor unions, and government bodies—chaplains have maintained a constant presence, and in some cases even expanded their ministry, focusing on the intersection of spiritual and mental health.
“The needs of employees, companies are coming to realize, are much more holistic than vacation time and leave policies,” said Michael Skaggs, director of programs for Brandeis University’s Chaplaincy Innovation Lab, which studies their role in public life. “Employees don’t leave their spiritual and religious needs at the door.”
In the United States, chaplains are stationed with universities, airports, and even the Department of Justice, which provides funding for them to assist local police departments in responding to crime, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks. After 9/11, chaplains from around the tri-state area responded to Ground Zero and counseled first responders. The federal government employs as many as 6,000 chaplains in the military, federal prisons, and the Veterans Administration, and healthcare organizations, including an estimated two-thirds of hospitals, account for another 10,000.
The roots of chaplaincy are undeniably Christian and Protestant, according to Winnifred Sullivan, author of A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law. And the intertwining of the chaplaincy with government service go back to the founding of the country: Christian chaplains served in the military during the Revolutionary War, while in the early nineteenth century, Protestant reformers who wanted to replace corporal punishment with rehabilitation became the first prison chaplains.
Recently, though, groups, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, concerned about the separation of church and state have repeatedly challenged the constitutionality of religious officials working on the taxpayer dime. In the second half of the twentieth century, U.S. courts followed a strict interpretation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on “respecting an establishment of religion,” taking it to mean a full separation of church and state. But starting in the 1980s, courts began interpreting the Establishment Clause differently. And in 1983, the Supreme Court considered the only case in its history challenging the constitutionality of government-funded chaplaincies, finding that the Nebraska state legislature was within its rights to hire a chaplain to open legislative sessions with an invocation because the practice did not favor a particular religion.
More recently, private companies have found chaplains provide workers with an important outlet. The decline of churches in America—6,000 to 10,000 close each year—makes accessing services harder for those who still want to, placing more of the burden of spiritual counseling on chaplains in secular institutions. David Miller, a Princeton professor who studies faith and work, told The Atlantic in 2016 that workplace chaplaincies can potentially “create lower turnover rates, increased levels of focus, and reduction in stress-related illnesses.”
“We live in a time of existential crisis…the proliferation of chaplains is partly a response to pain and to suffering on a huge scale.”
The United Auto Workers, a labor union founded in Detroit in 1935, started a pilot chaplaincy initiative at one chapter in Flint, Michigan in 1985. Now more than 600 locals, working in conjunction with Employee Assistance Programs, provide chaplain services. They offer help to workers struggling with a range of problems that may or may not be related to the job, said Yvonne Cash, a chaplain based in the UAW region that includes Detroit. Cash counsels workers who experience family deaths, struggles with substance abuse, and other health problems; she and other chaplains also attend funerals for members and their families, and have even joined striking union members on the picket lines.
Over the last few decades, chaplaincy has become increasingly secularized and professionalized, focusing more on general “spiritual health.” They “give a human touch to a difficult and fraught moment,” says Skaggs—serving as a universal presence that doesn’t aim to evangelize or convert. Chaplains in the U.S. follow religions as diverse as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca. But perhaps the biggest indicator of chaplaincy’s centrality to the spiritual needs of America is the arrival of humanist chaplains, who don’t believe in a higher power or deity, but instead aspire to contribute to “humanity’s greater good.”
“We live in a time of existential crisis, as a result of both environmental changes and political and technological changes,” Sullivan said. “And the phenomenon of the proliferation of chaplains is partly a response to pain and to suffering on a huge scale.”
One way chaplaincy has evolved is by adopting the language of psychology, which has become ubiquitous in American culture. This shift to more evidence-based care has led to the development of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), according to Sullivan—a type of therapy that recognizes spiritual health as a “necessary, integral, and universal component of good health care.” In the 1930s and 1940s, American Protestant ministers formalized the practice and developed a curriculum that trained chaplains to combine their spiritual training with knowledge of psychology and apply it in a hospital setting. CPE training is now a requirement, along with a graduate degree such as a Master of Divinity, for most chaplains entering government service.
In part, this more clinical approach is a response to the broader transition away from organized religion in the United States. The latest Pew Research Center survey on American religious beliefs found that the percentage of the population identifying as religiously unaffiliated—atheists, agnostics, or those who followed “nothing in particular”—stood at 26 percent in 2019; in the 1970s and 80s, that figure was less than 10 percent.
“Participation in religious communities is down, and it's going to be further down because the demographics in these communities are older,” said James Fraser, a humanities professor at New York University who studies the work chaplains do in colleges and universities. “But younger people, including our students, are showing great interest in something—meaning, purpose, spirituality, we call it different things. So if you're a young seminary student, or young clergy of whatever tradition, chaplaincy may be where you get a job.”
Chaplains exist at the complex intersection of spirituality and mental health, where the line between a spiritual crisis and a mental health crisis is not always clear even to the person experiencing it. Organizations employing chaplains stress that they are only one part of a holistic health and wellness approach, like offering gym discounts or other mental health services. But some employees won’t avail themselves of therapy services because of lingering stigma, as well as a fear that they won’t get promoted if their supervisors know they’re having mental health problems.
Talking to a chaplain carries no such weight. The informality can lead people to open up when they otherwise wouldn’t. Gelfant counseled one worker who was having marital problems and turned to abusing drugs and alcohol, nearly losing his job before a co-worker told him to go talk to a chaplain.
Faith in religious leaders and their ability to help with personal problems remains strong; 73 percent of respondents to a Pew survey in 2019 said they had “somewhat or a lot” of confidence in their clergy to help them with depression or anxiety. This can be particularly true for communities that have higher religious participation and a historical distrust of the medical establishment. A 2019 study by Rutgers University found that Latinos were about half as likely as non-Hispanic whites to get mental health help, in part due to a belief that disorders like depression were caused by a lack of faith, and another study on depressed Black men found that they underutilize mental health services. In cases like this, chaplains and other faith-based providers can provide a bridge to other resources too.
“The best chaplains understand the power and the limits of their role,” said Skaggs, of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. “If someone comes to them who’s grappling with mental health issues, a chaplain is not going to address that need—they’re going to say, ‘let me refer you to someone who knows how to handle that stuff.’” When dealing with trauma and mental health issues among the people they counsel, chaplains, guided by their CPE training, have to decide when to refer someone to a licensed therapist or, if the person is already seeing one, what they can provide that a more medical approach can’t.
It’s part of a larger conversation about the role of spiritual care in healthcare overall. The U.S. military uses a concept called “spiritual fitness”—which encompasses personal faith, foundational values and moral living, however this is defined by the individual—to encourage holistic health and wellbeing. Major insurance carriers, including Aetna, Cigna, and Anthem, all offer plans that include coverage of spiritual care, which proponents argue is a form of preventative care that helps reduce stress and drive down healthcare costs in the long term.
The idea that intangible problems like stress or spiritual crises could even have an effect on the physical body is fairly new, as awareness of a mind-body connection grew only gradually throughout the 20th century. But although research is still ongoing, spirituality is increasingly recognized as having tangible impacts on both physical and mental health. In 2001, researchers measured anxiety levels among patients admitted to the hospital with lung disease and discovered that those who received daily chaplain visits were significantly less anxious upon discharge, and spiritual distress has been linked to worse health outcomes among heart surgery patients. Recent research has even shown that religious and spiritual interventions can benefit mental health patients who are already receiving professional mental health care.
Ultimately, Fraser said, chaplains form part of a holistic approach to healthcare—one that recognizes religious and spiritual beliefs as an enduring part of modern life. A chaplain might be able to address a spiritual crisis better than a medical professional, according to Fraser, or could fulfill a religious role when it’s most needed—helping a grieving mother, for example, come to terms with the loss of her son to a subway train.
“If you need therapy, you’ve gotta go to a therapist,” Fraser said. “But if you’re having a ‘dark night of the soul’ and want to talk to somebody who spends time worrying about those issues, you go to a chaplain.”
Follow Diana Kruzman on Twitter.