Friday, March 28, 2014

Nancy Smith

Nancy Smith was a stay-at-home mom then a teacher, a hospital volunteer and a full- time hospital employee when she decided to follow her calling and retrain as a hospital chaplain. She was the chaplain at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital for almost a decade.  She was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1998 but through her studies and her work in multi-faith situations, she moved beyond the confines of the church to work in spiritual healing in its widest sense. She has been married to Joe since 1967 and has two children, Jennifer and Michael and two grandchildren, Ben and Clare.

What’s your story, Nancy?
I am a fourth generation Houstonian and I feel like I have followed a thread of learning my whole life. One of my great-grandparents on my father’s side traveled to Kansas in a covered wagon as a child and then came to Houston. She had one child and after she was divorced, she became the Dean of Jeff Davis High School even though she hadn't had a college education.  When she retired, she went to the University of Houston even though she was in her late seventies. So to me being a lifelong learner is something that has always been in my family and I just never thought of it as unusual.

My own path was really chosen for me, I wasn't the one who chose it. Like all of us, we have circumstances that happen which turn out to be fortuitous. I had grown up the granddaughter of a physician and though I thought I might be a nurse – I would have been Nurse Nancy! – I actually majored in education.  I was a stay-at-home mom until the mid-1980s doing all sorts of volunteer work with the kids like scouting and with the church. 

I went back into teaching when there was a bad economic turn and my husband was struggling to hold on to his real estate business, but I soon realized what I wanted to do was work for MD Anderson, the cancer hospital here in Houston.  I had been volunteering there for many years and had just spent two weeks as a summer camp counselor at Camp Star Trails with MD Anderson kids who were being treated for cancer. It was just a fabulous experience and the spirit of MD Anderson just called me.  So I resigned from my teaching job and was lucky enough to get a job there as a Patient Care Coordinator. We would meet a new patient when they first arrived, escort them around and show them the ropes. We were there to help them and to walk alongside them throughout their time in the hospital. So I got to meet so many well people whose bodies were not so well, and it seemed to me like the person kept getting “weller and weller"!

I realized then that we are all on such a spiritual journey. It had broadened my life so much to see people who had come from all over the world, patients and healthcare professionals, people who had taken such different paths from mine. One time I looked up at a Code Team – the team that comes from all over the hospital to perform CPR – and of this team there was not one face that was the same color as the one next to it, or even from the same religious tradition.  The sense of strong human spirit there totally amazed me, So I decided that I really wanted to support people's spirituality as they go through life.

To me, religion is humankind's way of making sense of life and the spirit which provides it so I began going to seminary at night after I worked all day. My sweet family didn't mind. I would get up at 4am and write my papers for my next class that night and a kind woman at work would type them for me.  I took three years of seminary over ten years and I just knew that there was a thread for me to keep following. I could see it in the scriptures I was reading or in whatever theology I was studying and I could see it come to life in people. It sent me on a journey that went deeper into the church and then it took me away from the church again.

I struggled with the church as an institutional structure and the way that people believe in literalism. It seemed to me that for them faith became such a limiting factor.  Take healing, for example since that’s what I was all about.  In the Bible there are stories of healings. You can take them literally and it won't ever apply to your life because you can't really believe that could happen to you. But what if you see the metaphorical ways that healing happens, like the concept of resurrection?  When you see over and over again people being borne up from the ashes of what they have experienced, you realize that if you believe it too literally, it keeps the truth of it at a distance. It was good for me not only to intellectualize all this but also to integrate what I was learning with what I was experiencing at MD Anderson.

I have had people say to me, "So, what are you?" Well, I went to four different seminaries. I graduated from the Houston Graduate School of Theology, which is a Quaker seminary, because it's here in Houston. I couldn't pick up and go to another location because my family was here and my job was here. I also took lots of classes at Perkins, the Methodist seminary and even at the Catholic seminary.  I actually took one class at Houston Baptist University but discovered that my male peers were not open to women and it felt very oppressive, maybe not from the professors, but from certainly the young men, so that wasn't for me.

My husband and I belonged to a moderate, smaller Baptist Church and there was a wonderful pastor there who believed, as I did, that women could do anything men could do and in the Bible when it said that women don't teach it was more a cultural thing. In 1998, when I was ready to be ordained, he led the church through a study and put me before the church so they could ask about my calling.  When they voted and only four people voted against me from a membership of around 120.  I was so indebted to that beautiful congregation for doing that, but still, four people did leave the church over it.  I know though that it wasn't just good for me, it was good for the church too!

By that time, I was already a practicing chaplain having taken two years of clinical pastoral education. I worked at CanCare and then took on a full-time ministry at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital which was a wonderful experience.  A licensed professional counselor has to go through lots of supervision and if my supervisor, Leanne Rathbun, were in Houston I would nominate her as an Inspiring Houston Woman too. Leanne gave me permission to be messy inside because at that time I felt I knew a lot less than I had known before, and I know even less now than I have ever known. You have all those absolute certainties about life when you're young, in your teens and 20s, but then you start thinking, “Wait, there's more!”  That's what happened to my religion. I could see that there was more and I really wanted little girls in the Baptist Church to know that they could do anything. In fact I wanted little girls everywhere to know that if they follow what's inside, they can “Go for it!”  That for me is what it's all about and teaching and healing are all part of the same thing, part of becoming who you really are.

It has felt rather like coming out of the closet in a way for me because I have hidden it from some people I knew in my previous life as a hospital chaplain or as a church person, because I don't want to disappoint them. But I have moved on and I think I would never call myself a Christian in the traditional exclusive sense anymore because I appreciate that there are different paths of different streams which all come off the same river. I’ve worked out that I can’t use anymore the religious language I used to use, because I know that there is more to it.  I’m not saying that I go through a cafeteria line and choose only what I want, but I feel that we can really expand each other’s understanding of where we came from and where we are going just by listening to each other.

That stood me in good stead in the hospital community because a hospital is a microcosm of the world which is why I love it, and the hospital chapel is not a Christian chapel, it is a place for all to go to.  I was the lead chaplain at Memorial City for almost ten years and in our chapel there was a symbol.  It was a cross.  Now, many of my friends were Jewish, the patients and the volunteers were Jewish and I became very close with a rabbi who is in our area, and they would come and light the Hanukkah candles.  At the time of the Jewish high holy days in September, I wanted to cover that particular symbol so that they could come into the chapel and maybe have a service there. So I went to Hansen Galleries and they gave me a beautiful piece of fabric, a tapestry that was so colorful it looked like a stained glass window. I hung that up over the cross but when it came time to take it down and return it to Hansen Galleries, I felt so uncomfortable about it. It felt like we were putting up Aunty Mable’s picture on the wall just because Uncle Henry was coming to visit, only to take it down again when he left.  I thought this doesn’t feel right. We are acting as if we are the owners of this house and we are not. So I went to my supervisor and we agreed to take down the Christian symbol.  Of course, a lot of people were not happy but another chaplain and I worked with a quilter in Pennsylvania who made us a beautiful quilt to hang there instead.  She told us about why she had put this thread here and that thread there, it was all about the story of life’s journey.
Faces of Faith - by Ed Hankey
We had interfaith services in the chapel and one year when all of the Festivals of Light – Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali and Ramadan – all overlapped we organized Sharing the Light of our Faith.  People from different faiths brought pictures and other things to hang outside the chapel and I loved it.  Later the volunteers gave us the gift of a sculpture for the niche outside our chapel and I helped design it.  We called it Faces of Faith, a group of men, women and children of different faiths at different ages.  It’s still there although there is a new chapel.

I retired in 2006 because my mother was very ill, so I got to spend some time with my mother at the end of her life and I wouldn't take anything for that.  I didn't go back to the hospital after she died because my father developed Alzheimer's.  That was another little turn in the road, but you know, all along the way, while you are following that thread, I think there is such a responsibility to tell your own truth.   Though you don't want to squash anybody else's truth, I truly believe that there is a built-in salvific force that our creator has put inside us which moves us towards whoever we are. I don't want to put a name to it.  Most people call that creator God but to me, that's a limiting word. Theologian Paul Tillich said that it’s the ‘ground of all being’ and I believe that. I believe it's more than religious language can describe. I wouldn't deny my Christian faith because of course it brought me to where I am. I believe it all but I also believe there’s more.

What advice would you give to someone new to spiritual healing?
Well, whether it’s someone new to teaching or healing, in healthcare, as a mom or as a friend, I would say that you must listen to that still small voice inside, and if something out there isn't congruent with your experiences don't just jump into it. Keep on listening to yourself and to your experience because each of our experiences, every one of them good or bad, is part of our wholeness.

Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
My husband, Joe, has been my greatest enabler in the best sense of the word. His acceptance and encouragement of my evolution is life giving.  There have been other people too, all along the way, who have influenced me and I lament that I am not in touch with every one of those people still. But we were there for each other, influenced each other and inspired each other even if it was only for that one day or even that one hour.  There were my friends that I ran with, there was my great friend Polly, there were people I worked with at MD Anderson, and there were the patients too.  And there’s Rabbi Rabinowitz and my nephew Blaine who has cerebral palsy.  Really, there are so many of them.

How do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?
When I was younger I ran marathons and even now my physical fitness is very important to me.  So I go over to Trotter YMCA every morning and do my exercises.  That gives my day structure, and I experience the YMCA as a place of great diversity and faithfulness.  I know lots of lovely groups of people over there.  We have a birthday club and on Sundays I go to what I call ‘yoga church’.  It's wonderful!  It's like a ritual for me and it keeps me grounded. There are people in that class from all over the world and it feels just like a beautiful little church for me, with all the people from different places.  I used to be on the board there years ago when the Y set up a Women’s Center because many women don't want to exercise with other people, especially the Muslim women because they have to be dressed. So in the Women's Center they don't have to be. It's a separate space, smaller than the big one and I thought that was just very understanding and empathic, especially for a Christian organization.

Jerusalem International YMCA
I traveled to Israel in November and it was so good. We stayed in Jerusalem in a hotel called the King David Hotel which was absolutely fabulous.  Right across the street was a YMCA housed in a historic building and when you walk in, their mission statement is there on the wall and it says we are a place of peace amidst a time of religious diversity.  It was special to me to come across that.

What does Houston mean to you?
It's a whole different city than it was. The little house I grew up in is long gone.  It was on Norfolk Street and now it’s under Greenway Plaza!  Then we moved out to Briargrove when that was the furthest you could go.  I love when I go to the Heights because that's where my father's family originated and I love going over to the Montrose area because that's where my mother's family came from. I see places that aren't even there anymore, but they're so real in my mind.

Where is your happy place in Houston?
On my patio. On a pretty day I just sit tight there and wherever I look I see green in any direction.

What is your favorite restaurant?
It’s Pondicheri. I love the big breakfast plate because I love the way they balance their tastes. Another place I love is a neighborhood restaurant called Joyce's which has been here forever and ever. It used to be that we would go in there and I would think it was full of old people, and of course, now I'm there! Anyway it's a lovely little retro seafood place.

What is your Houston secret?
One place I love is full of secrets. Glenwood Cemetery was, I believe, the first planned public garden in Houston. People in the 1800s went there for picnics and it is filled with famous and infamous Houstonians and world class sculpture. The monthly tours led by Jim Parsons are really fun and are rich with history and gossip.

If you could change one thing about Houston
I love the vitality of Houston and I love the diversity, but if there's anything I'd change it would be that we could see each other's ‘otherness’ more readily and be more accepting of it.  We should embrace it more than being afraid of it. I love the things that are organized to foster diversity like the festivals in Downtown.

I also think that in this city it is too easy to become isolated. We go to work and we come home and stay there. So I think we all need to make an effort to get out there and meet more people. I would certainly change that about myself.

Nancy Smith was nominated as an Inspiring Houston Woman by Jennifer Enos

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