Essential Humanism: Profiles of Courage in a Pandemic Part V: Jason Callahan, Humanist Chaplain

Tell us about your job. What are some of the ways it’s changed during the pandemic?

I work as a humanist chaplain and instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health in Richmond, Virginia. It’s a dual role that incorporates university teaching and pastoral care in the hospital.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we ended up becoming the only department in the College of Health Professions that didn’t go remote due to the fact that we are also essential personnel in the hospital. This makes teaching difficult because it’s all done virtually. We also began having many more meetings on Zoom and had to figure out ways to do things that we used to do in person, but from a distance.

The patient care aspect was affected tremendously due to the visitation restrictions put in place. Chaplains all ended up having to take on family members’ roles due to the isolation issues. We have also spent a lot more time making sure we’re not transmitting the disease in our interactions. Lots more washing of hands. Lots more protective equipment. Staff care also has increased in focus due to the burdens for team members.

How do you feel about being an “essential” part of the workforce? 

Being essential is a mixed bag. It’s nice to see the holistic value placed on chaplaincy, but it’s also hard knowing that I have to get up every day and put my family at risk if I happen to bring something home.

Are you required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while at work? Is it provided to you?

We are provided with PPE by the hospital. The university plans on providing further PPE to employees as they phase back in with us, so we’ll get even more.

What’s something your employer is doing well during the pandemic?

Fortunately, VCU and VCUHS are staying ahead of things and learning from systems that were hit earlier and harder. The system has set up support for all employees, and mental health has become much more of a focus. We stay up to date on proper guidelines for cleanliness as well as having protective equipment managed properly. Recognizing the human emotional dimension to healthcare, our visitation policies have been structured to protect the environment while incorporating families as much as possible, especially of end of life care situations. Regular town halls and management meetings are occurring, and transparency with staff has been outstanding.

What’s something you would change to make your work environment better or safer during the pandemic?

I wouldn’t necessarily change anything, but I would start preparing for a second wave, make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves in thinking we are in the clear, and continue our policies in place even after public officials move into newer phases to re-open the city.

How does being an essential worker affect your family? What are their reactions?

My son just knows that I’m gone all day and he is with his mom. We get less time together, so he is affected that way. My wife just wants to make sure I don’t get anyone else sick, but she knows I have an important role to play.

How can the public make your job easier and/or safer?

Use your heads as things open back up. Instead of acting like mindless consumers, be changed by what we are experiencing and don’t be one of the people that brings this second wave on harder than it needs to be. That way we can keep numbers down in the hospital until we get a vaccine.

What kind of positive change do you hope comes out of the pandemic–for you, for society at large?

I hope we cut the fat from our lifestyles and remember how this forced us to keep close to home. I hope that this time isolated and fearful helps us appreciate every moment we have and helps us learn to go deeper into relationships as we seek to be back in each other’s company. I also hope this teaches leaders how to handle true pandemics better in the future.

Does a religious faith inform your values? 


Do people you interact with on the job express religious beliefs to you or in other ways express their values?

People express themselves to me through religion and by other means. Being a chaplain, many people project expectations that my role is specifically about religion. Those that have experienced professional chaplains know different and use us for more varied support needs. This can be inclusive of life reviews, legacy work, goals conversations, counseling; all these things are ways patients, families, and staff express themselves to me.

What do you miss the most about your pre-pandemic life?

The gym and car time with my son.