One spring day in 1994, layman Dan Cobb walked into the pastoral-care office at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, one of the major institutions of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and said, “I would like to be trained as a volunteer lay chaplain so that I can give back for all that has been given me.”
His was a prophetic voice, a timely call to begin a “new thing.” The director of pastoral care assigned the task to St. Luke’s leaders to establish such a program, and a spiritual community took root in the form of Community of Hope.
According to program leaders, Community of Hope equips laity to pursue and practice the spiritual disciplines found in the Benedictine rule and to minister where their spiritual gifts are best suited for giving comfort and care to those in need. As the program spread across the country, the need for decentralization was recognized. In June 2005, it reorganized into a new, more diverse structure composed of leaders from the various regional groups of training centers. Renamed the Community of Hope International, the program is governed by a board of directors of regional representatives and several clergy members.
Today, under the guidance and direction of the Diocese of Texas – which has 36 centers – 84 Community of Hope centers offer spiritual formation and pastoral-care ministries by trained volunteers. The centers are established in churches, health-care facilities and correctional institutions across the United States and Canada. Several non-Episcopal churches and institutions, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Roman Catholics and the United Church of Christ, also have created centers.
Sharon LaRue, a parishioner at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, is responsible for a breakfast program at the cathedral that feeds approximately 200 homeless or nearly homeless neighbors on Saturdays.
The 10-year-old program is tied to Community of Hope, as many volunteers are chaplains, says LaRue. Additionally, the chaplains lead a chapel service after breakfast. “Initially, the ‘congregation’ at this service numbered in the handfuls,” says LaRue. “Today the average attendance ranges from between 30 to 70 people. They actively participate in the service as acolytes, readers and music leaders. There are even a few who, if they have had work that week, tithe.
“It is not uncommon for this group to present the chaplain with a Money Order for 10 percent of their meager earnings for the week.”
A covenant for the caregivers
The Rev. Tom Papazoglakis, rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Pewaukee, Wis., and COHI president, says he has witnessed the transforming effect of parishioners in leadership roles. The program has been established at the church for almost four years.
“The church is where it’s working,” says Papazoglakis. “We have had significant change in leadership in the parishes, people finding their calling, leaders filling volunteer roles, to leaders following their spiritual gifts and call to ministry.” The parish has 35 actively involved chaplains. Approximately 325 prayer shawls made by the volunteers have been given to people in need.
“It is a ministry that, not only do you know that you are doing good for others, but your life is being transformed, and you are sharing with others whose lives are being transformed as well,” says Papazoglakis.
The response to this ministry is a result of a covenant developed for the caregivers, says Robert Wells, director of Community of Hope for the Diocese of Texas for almost four years and head of the pastoral-care department at St. Luke’s. The diocese has developed a covenant for the lay pastoral caregivers, to be signed every 12 months, stating their commitment for another year to meet with the local community and do pastoral care.
This year, the diocese is asking all centers to sign the covenant, reporting that they are keeping the minimum standard as a center and, if not, how they are moving toward compliance. “We’ve moved toward more structure, more accountability and more depth within the Community of Hope,” says Wells.
This June, the program reaches out to the larger church when two leaders will head an exhibit booth at the General Convention, shared with the Friends of St. Benedict. Mary Bredenberg is on the COHI board and a member of the Church of St. Michael and St. George, St. Louis, for 10 years.
Bredenberg says she hopes to “tell our story about Community of Hope to the larger church, because it is a movement where people can deepen their spiritual life through the Benedictine rule and go from there to minister to God’s people within the parishes and the larger community.”