In 1999, when Rambhoru Dasi moved back to her native USA after nearly thirty years of traveling and spreading Krishna consciousness around the world, her goal was to create a career through which she could support her family.
Little did she realize that not only would she succeed in this goal—she’d also find the deepest spiritual fulfillment of her life, as an interfaith chaplain and clinical pastoral educator (trainer of chaplains).
But her path there was not a quick one. After completing a Bachelor’s Degree in religious studies at Guilford College in North Carolina, she moved to California, where she got her Master of Divinity Degree at the Claremont School of Theology in 2004. She then began studying for a PhD in Comparative Religions. But things were to take a surprising turn.
In 2005, struggling through a difficult time in her life, and needing a break from academia, Rambhoru took a year off from her PhD studies to take up residency learning clinical pastoral education at the Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona.
Life at the hospital, located on the border of Mexico and the US, near the Yuma marine base, was intense.
“I saw soldiers returning home from Iraq maimed, and sat with amputees who had only a week left to live,” Rambhoru says. “I did a lot of crying that year. Being so close to the reality of death and suffering was a transformative, purifying experience for me.”
Rambhoru connects with a patient as they prepare to pray together
Realizing that becoming a clinical pastoral educator would be a career far more nurturing to her spirit than academia, Rambhoru dropped her PhD program and instead got a Masters’ Degree in Patient Counseling. She then began to work towards getting board certified with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Educators (ACPD).
During this time, Rambhoru worked as an interfaith chaplain at Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital for three years, seeing twenty to thirty patients every day.
Although making no attempt to hide her identity as a devotee of Krishna, she strictly avoided proselytizing or trying to convert anyone in their time of suffering.
Instead, whether baptizing and giving communion to Christian patients, or reading from the Bhagavad-gita to Hindus, Rambhoru’s goal was to listen to everyone and create a safe, non-judgemental and compassionate space for them to tell their story.
“A chaplain assumes that much of the time, when someone comes to the hospital, they are experiencing a spiritual as well as a physical crisis,” she says. “For instance, they may have crashed while drinking and driving, or overdosed on drugs, or been involved in gang shootings.”
Rambhoru plays her therapeutic harp for patients
She adds, “While the doctor attends to the physical body, the chaplain attends to the soul and helps them correct that spiritual imbalance. We never try to convince them of a certain path or even that there is a God, but rather help them explore their own faith and how it helps them cope.”
Sometimes healing the spirit has dramatic results. Once, a man dying of cancer expressed that his last wish was to see his estranged daughter, whom he had not spoken to for twenty years after a fight. Tracking her down, Rambhoru put her on the phone with him.
After speaking with the man, his daughter flew to the hospital to meet him. The two talked for hours, and cried, and reconciled their relationship. And then, incredibly, the man’s cancer went into remission, and he recovered fully, leaving the hospital with his daughter.
On another occasion, Rambhoru, who plays a therapeutic harp for all her patients, said a prayer in the “Lord’s Holy Name” and played Amazing Grace by the bedside of a baby dying from salmonella poisoning and bacterial meningitis. The harp, she says, opens the chakras and de-stresses patients so that the healing goes deeper.
The next day, the child made a full recovery. A local newspaper article about the incident entitled “A Christmas Miracle” appeared soon after, while the parents later recounted to the chaplain at their church that they felt sure it was the sincere prayer and the harp music that had saved their baby’s life.
After four years as a chaplain in Arizona and Virginia, Rambhoru now continues in that role at the Los Angeles County Hospital and University of Southern California.
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Rambhoru teaches chaplains-in-training
She also directs a Clinical Pastoral Education program at Saint Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angles. For her students—only six per semester—it takes four units and just over a year to become certified professionals in the chaplaincy field. Units—there are thirteen weeks each in the fall and spring and a ten week intensive in the summer—involve thirty hours of clinical ministry and twelve hours of education.
“As it’s an interfaith program, I also take my students to spend a full eight-hour day each at the local Buddhist temple, Islamic Mosque, Jewish College University, and Hare Krishna temple,” Rambhoru says. “At all of them we worship, eat together, and ask questions about how to minister to persons of each faith.”
Not everyone can handle the taxing yet rewarding job of chaplain, and Rambhoru makes sure her students know what they’re in for, taking them to visit the Los Angeles Crematory in their first week of study.
“As a chaplain they’ll see a lot of death and dying, so I immerse them in it right away, showing them the reality behind the sugar-coating our American culture often hides behind,” she says.
Rambhoru also has her students tell their life stories and explain their spiritual influences, as chaplain training advises that early experiences, particularly from the ages of 0 to 10, highly impact the way one sees God and relates to others. Finally, they take the Myers Briggs personality test, so that they can learn about their own personal strengths and weaknesses.
For ISKCON devotees interested in a chaplaincy career, Rambhoru advises first getting a graduate level theological degree. Then she recommends applying for the less than two years of education required to become a board certified chaplain at Berkely’s Chaplaincy Institute, or at her own Saint Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles.
The work of a chaplain, Rambhoru feels, is ideal for devotees. While there is no room for narrow-mindedness or proselytizing, there is ample opportunity for personal spiritual growth and for sharing Krishna consciousness with others in the right circumstances.
“My boss, a Catholic priest who follows the four regulative principles and is vegetarian, hired me because I was a Hare Krishna,” she says. “I have placed copies of Bhagavad-gita As It Is in nearly all the hospitals in Southern California. I’ve sang kirtan with Indian patients. I’ve taught the Hare Krishna mantra to an American amputee dying of cancer, who passed away while chanting. I’ve been asked to perform arati ceremonies as my part in a rotation of worship.”
Rambhoru also gets the chance to represent ISKCON amongst her colleagues, all of whom know she’s a Hare Krishna, and many of whom accept her invites to the Los Angeles ISKCON temple for Janmastami or other festivals.
Most of all, however, being a chaplain is a career that resonates with her spiritual path and nurtures her own growth as a devotee.
“My understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s books has gotten much deeper,” she says, “I’ve become more open to learning from other faiths, and I’ve been set on the path towards developing the kind of unconditional love that I believe Prabhupada is calling us all to give.”
For more on spiritual pastoral care, please visit www.bhakticare.blogspot.com.
To find out more about being a chaplain, please write to: rambhoru at yahoo dot com. (address spelled out to prevent spam) To apply for chaplaincy programs at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkely or Saint Camillus Center for Spiritual Care in Los Angeles, visit http://www.chaplaincyinstitute.org/ or http://www.urbanchaplaincy.org.