We need to not be afraid, but to be informed. The more we know, the less anxious we are. Knowledge lessens anxiety.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Earl Johnson.
For ten years, the national spiritual care manager for the American Red Cross, Rev. Earl E. Johnson, recruited, screened, trained, and deployed highly credentialed healthcare chaplains to mass fatality events. From plane crashes to school shootings, Johnson was part of a team that assessed and planned emotional and spiritual support for the victims and loved ones of these horrific unanticipated events. He coordinated professional spiritual care support to fatal domestic aviation incidents, massive Gulf hurricanes including Katrina, Rita, and Gus, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Orlando Pulse nightclub murders.
Johnson is an ordained Disciples minister, Yale Divinity graduate, and Board-Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains. He served Disciples and UCC parishes in Missouri and New York before his chaplaincy training at Memorial Sloan Kettering/New York-Presbyterian (Cornell), and New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn. Rev. Johnson was the Protestant Staff Chaplain at Cabrini Medical Center (now closed) from 1996–2001, when he moved from lower Manhattan to Arlington, Va., on Sept. 9, 2001, to work as a chaplain educator at Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center.
Johnson helped develop the Psychological First Aid curriculum and its adaption for military families and the National Guard; Coping with Deployment for the organization. He is the author of Finding Comfort During Hard Times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
OnSeptember 9, 2001, I moved from lower Manhattan to Arlington, Virginia, to start my job as a chaplain educator at Washington Hospital Center. I was sitting in my backyard having my morning coffee when the plane hit the Pentagon. I thought it was the sound of a normal explosion since I had lived on Third Avenue and 19th Street in New York City next to a hospital emergency room and truck backfires and sirens where 24-hour aural wallpaper to me. Five weeks later I found myself in a hotel conference room in Georgia being trained by the Red Cross to be a disaster spiritual care manager.
The disaster became a far more compelling vocation than cancer and kidney failure although the illness is a tremendous disaster. And, I found that companioning people through sickness and disease transferred to those experiencing catastrophic disasters like hurricanes and school shootings.
Being with someone in crisis is being with someone in crisis. Being a healthcare chaplain was very similar to being a disaster chaplain. Both deal with death and dying. Both deal with catastrophes. Both deal with grief and change because when one is diagnosed with illness, it is definitely a disaster and a new normal. Since I worked with mass fatality management and unanticipated death, I began to have more clarity about the important things in life. Being around so much death and dying became such intimate, sacred work. From working as a youth minister to teaching college classes, from preaching about social justice to working in hospice, I have been given extraordinary experience and exposure to the instruments of life and death.
There is no greater task than taking care of another person.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“And the Band Played On” by Randy Shilts. Gay cancer was diagnosed the year I finally came out of the closet. Fear and sex became linked together in an unholy alliance. To live fully and intimately also meant risking death. While transitioning from a parish minister behind the altar to working at Brooks Brothers behind the tie counter, I learned that many of my new friends were becoming infected and sick. In Shilts book, the history of the AIDS pandemic coincided with my own personal journey of becoming a man. I worked as a fashion model and lived five years based in Italy which allowed me both the privacy and opportunity to become who I was.
So many friends and colleagues got sick or disappeared only to learn later that they had succumbed to the virus.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- We know there are people who are trained to help us and they care. Not only the medical community but those who have clinical training to provide emotion and spiritual support. Vocation and mission are combined. I’m married to a doctor and I’ve worked as a hospital chaplain and I know how much we care. It is a common denominator for those entering and thriving in a helping environment.
- We know medical personnel has professional ethics and standards of care. Fierce adherence to their oath to save and protect life and years of clinical training and experience have produced an extraordinary canon of best practices and standards of care. Anticipated injury already presents in a state of treatment. The care begins with the arrival of the EMTs and continues through the emergency room and continuum of care. The preferred outcome is survival without impediment in a safe and dignified environment.
- We know that the highest value is to save lives. During the beginning of the AIDS and COVID 19 pandemics, healthy appearing people would present early or no symptoms and be dead within weeks and months. The impact upon the medical community was acute as so many died without any treatment working. That powerlessness is not easily forgotten.
- We know that how we treat the most vulnerable reveals who we are as a community. Whenever a patient presents symptoms or injury, there is no discrimination based upon race, creed, color, sexual orientation, or vocation. The poor and the marginalized are inversely affected by catastrophe and violence.
- We need to not be afraid, but to be informed. The more we know, the less anxious we are. Knowledge lessens anxiety.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Start the conversation. Introduce yourself and briefly say who you are. While we’re not able to offer a handshake or hug, we can connect verbally from a safe distance. That introduction may be the beginning of a life-saving or life-affirming act of hospitality or assistance.
- Offer hospitality. Be a good neighbor. Check-in with elderly neighbors and relatives and offer assistance with shopping and important errands.
- Tell the truth. Keep your promises. People need accurate information and reassurance. Make sure you know what you’re talking about is truthful and legitimate. Don’t make promises one can’t keep or that overwhelm the giver. Be better.
- Be reassuring and genuine. This is the time to be authentic. Be the person you were meant to be; honest and remarkable. Aspire to inspire. Encouraging someone is another way of expressing love and compassion.
- Don’t assume that you will be completely heard. It’s not what you’re saying is untrue or too soft to be heard, it’s that the listener is traumatized and is not at 100% capacity. It’s okay to repeat or emphasize but don’t make too many assumptions that what you’ve requested or shared has been fully grasped.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
Those that comfort and reassure.
Family and friends that can rise to the occasion and show inner strength and reason and are trustworthy. Those that are kind and true and honest. Those who can companion with mercy and justice. Those that can comfort.
Those that do not overwhelm, keep it simple.
Sometimes being with someone is enough and not about doing anything beyond having a cup of coffee or receptive ear. Listening to someone is a powerful gift and respect for one another is an ultimate value. It doesn’t have to be complicated or unique, it just has to be true and authentic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
There’s a dream in the future
There’s a struggle that we have yet to win
And there’s pride in my heart
Cause I know where I’m going,
And I know where I’ve been.
— -Queen Latifah, from Hairspray
I grew up in a blue-collar family in rural Missouri. My father was a car mechanic and my mother helped my father and took care of aging relatives. As I reflect on these lyrics, I’m heartened by the message that one should not fear the future, because all that we have experienced by being human and of a certain age, I will be okay. I’m prepared for all that may occur in the future, because of all the extraordinary experiences and wisdom gained along the way to today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement which would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Dancing at a Distance. You can tell a lot about a culture by the way they dance. Some dances are tribal, some are celebrations, others can be mournful and beautiful. There aren’t a lot of public social activities that touch something in our unconscious like dancing. During this time of quarantine and isolation, having people dance on their front steps to the same radio station can be an act of solidarity, connection, and defiance to the sobriety of darkness and death. I have spent too much time around death and dying and I need to remember how to dance. I’m not alone. Or even a ‘dance around the dining room table’…anything that may be silly and joyous yet may lift our spirits and break the monotony of staying at home and sheltering in place. And, ice cream for breakfast to occasionally lift our spirits! Pick the daffodil, eat the marshmallow!
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
There is a new website: www.earljohnson.org that is information.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!