The Befrienderforum.org blog continues the story metaphor listening approach begun with the Befriender program at St. Luke's hospital, Davenport, Iowa, in 1966. The story begins with a member of the hospital Auxiliary who was disturbed by the rule, “do not talk to patients when you take the notions cart (candy and nick hacks) around.” Mavoreen found patients wanting to talk.
My background, which will be revealed as we go along, made her think I could be of some assistance. She asked, "How can we change the rule?" I was in my second year as the first resident chaplain at St. Luke’s and Mavoreen had been a youth assistant when I was in charge of Christian education at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport. This was where my ministry resided for three years before coming to the Hospital. She knew my interests in lay ministry training and Baptismal ministry.
At the time she appeared I was reading a book by Chad Varah, The Samaritans. He had started a suicide prevention group in London and the book told the story of their beginning and well as some of the emotions in the lives of those they cared for. After lay people volunteered to serve tea to those waiting to see the professionals they found on half the people coming needed to see the professionals. Their discovery was to incorporate lay people as front line responders.
While reading I thought many of the same emotions were present in hospital patients. Could hospital patients benefit from a listener? Mavoreen gave me the opportunity to pursue this.
My proposal to the administrator was to train lay people to visit patients as "story listeners." As I made patient visits I found patients had a story to share. In fact, part of my training in Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital in New York City during the summer of 1953 had been with a supervisor whose approach was "story listening." I was to learn later that Fred Kuether was a pioneer in this endeavor.
My proposal was not accepted immediately or readily. The administrator said I needed the approval of the Hospital Auxiliary, nursing service, and the medical staff. The Auxiliary readily approved since they would have another volunteer service. Nursing service wanted the doctors to decide first. The Executive Committee of the Medical Staff took considerable time before giving their approval. It was reported to me, “they did not want amateur psychologists running around the hospital.” As a fact, at this time psychologist were not allowed, only psychiatrists.
Upon approval of all concerned, the task was to train a group to be the "story listeners." In the area at the time, Paul Swanson, was the pastoral care professor at the Lutheran Seminary in Rock Island. He had some experience with lay visitors when he was at Massachusetts General in Boston.
I chose three people from Trinity Cathedral to be the first Befrienders. They had been part of our Youth Lenten discussion to facilitate and listen to the concerns of high school students.
After some initial training our morning schedule began with chapel time, Scripture reading, discussion, and prayers. We used shortened Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Patient visits were then assigned. On the nursing floor they checked with the nurses about the advisability of seeing particular patient as well accepting referrals. The impact over time brought about a culture for story listening. Before leaving the hospital each Befriender wrote a short account of their visit to provide a debriefing session. The debriefing had multiple purposes, mainly to "keep our learning close to the practice" and “maintain confidentiality.” Many Aha!s, new insights, were experienced. More about that as we go along.
The second year six people were accepted into the training and visiting. Folks came from different congregations. An application procedure for acceptance was put in place. Two crisis stories you would be willing to share with others. During the interview this broke in two directions. People wanted to support others and they had been supported, and others who missed the support realized how important it is for others.
In a few years our training involved 30 weeks with a two year commitment. Our active listening approach in 1976 became the art of story metaphor listening. Focusing on the metaphors in a patients story. There was no charge for the training. The 30 weeks were divided into three units. (1) The art of listening informed by the Incarnation, (2) The different focus areas of our listening informed by reconciliation, and (3) a discussion of the three verbatim visits each was required to write informed by community building. They began to visit patients during the second unit and shortly after that they chose visits for the verbatim.
From the beginning our intention was “to learn as we go,” making changes when needed. Antoine Boisen’s instructions, “study the living documents” became a guiding principle as well as “keep the learning close to the practice.” The program is now in its 53rd year. I managed the program for 25 years. Others are continuing as well as the other medical center in the Quad Cities. In 1978 Sister Connie Nadou came down from the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, to study our program. This is the origin of the Befriended Program that first moved to St. Thomas College and now is separate and promoted out of Edina, MN. Glad to be part of what has made a difference in lay ministry and Baptism Ministry. My senior paper at Virginia Seminary On The Ministry of the Whole Church took a turn not anticipated. The Holy Spirit seems to have guided a different outcome.
The Rev. Canon Marlin Whitmer, BCC, (Ret.). Retired Hospital Chaplain, Bettendorf, Iowa