Comfort Garden—Chaplain’s Address
by Elizabeth Welch
Multi-Faith Chaplaincy is a non-profit organization. Our mission is to provide spiritual care for the San Francisco General Hospital community—patients, their loved ones, and the staff. I am here today to offer a few remarks about the importance of the SFGH Comfort Garden (and all the gardens and green space here) to the work of spiritual care. I would like to begin and end with short poems, both by Nancy Wood:

You shall ask
What good are dead leaves
And I will tell you
They nourish the sore earth.
You shall ask
What reason is there for winter
And I will tell you
To bring about new leaves.
You shall ask
Why are the leaves so green
And I will tell you
Because they are rich with life.
You shall ask
Why must summer end
And I will tell you
So that the leaves can die.
©Nancy Wood

Since the time that I started working here one year ago, the Comfort Garden has frequently been blocked off due to construction. This has made me aware of what it is to not have this space available. And I am so grateful for it now. Much of what I do is to train volunteer chaplains and interns, and I bring them to the Comfort Garden on their first day. I tell them this is the most important place at the hospital for you to know about; this is the place of renewal. This is where you come after those difficult visits. This is where you come at the end of that challenging day. This is where you come after witnessing all that suffering and pain. Come here to the Comfort Garden to let it go and renew your spirit.

Since the time the Comfort Garden was developed, the chaplaincy has used the space in a number of ways. Yearly remembrance services have been held to commemorate losses of staff and patients and to support the grief process of patients, their loved ones, and staff. These services included creating name tags to identify plants. They were intended to be impermanent— a symbol of our impermanence, and how the earth cradles us in death as in life. The services in this garden were  


San Francisco General Hospital—Leaves Photo Courtesy Sally Shute  

crucial to this hospital community during the time that so many people were dying of AIDS. They helped this community walk through the grief.

Various spiritual rituals have been observed in this space, rituals of connecting to the four directions, the four elements, and the change of seasons, all of which have significant meanings in various spiritual traditions.

Just this past week, a Wiccan priestess, an expert in earth-based spiritual traditions, presented a ceremony to our volunteer chaplains. We came to the Comfort Garden and joined in a ritual of celebrating the blessings of the earth.

Chaplains are always advocates for those things that support our wholeness as human beings. We recognize connection to the earth and connection to nature as crucial to healing. I often direct family members, patients, and staff here—this space is important for the whole hospital community.

We are a multi-faith chaplaincy—we support the faith, beliefs and values of those we work with, and indeed, we work with people of all different faiths. Amidst all of that difference, all of that diversity, nature is a point of connection and a pathway to peace and healing—stable, yet constantly changing, mirroring the circle of birth and death, and the transformation of suffering into joy.

All spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of nature, the earth, and of all growing things. Connection with the earth is healing. Gardens—the presence of growing things—reminds us both of how small we are and yet how connected we are to the earth and one another. The natural world can speak to our loneliness and to our grief. And most importantly in a hospital environment, a sojourn in this beautiful garden brings peace and healing. It brings us away from the starkness of the hospital—the machines, the noises, the smells, the pain, and the suffering. This space as well as other green spaces and gardens here bring peace to the hospital community every day.

Part of why I am here is to express a deep appreciation for your work. I especially wish to thank Joan Varney and all the gardening staff who make these grounds a beautiful, inviting and healing space. I thank God for this space every day, and I thank God for your work.

I will leave you with a poem:  

The earth is all that lasts.
The earth is what I speak to when
I do not understand my life
Nor why I am not heard.
The earth answers me with the same song
That it sang for my fathers (and mothers) when
Their tears covered up the sun.
The earth sings a song of praise.
The earth rises up and laughs at me
Each time that I forget
How spring begins with winter
And death begins with birth.
© Nancy Wood. Many Winters. Bantam Doubleday Dell Books: 1974.

Elizabeth Welch is the Coordinator of Programs for the Sojourn Multi-Faith Chaplaincy at San Francisco General Hospital. She can be reached at:   

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Jack Carman, FASLA, Chair (2013-2014)
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Past Chairs

Steve Mitrione, ASLA (2012-2013)

Rick Spalenka (2011-2012)

Susan Erickson, ASLA (2008-2010)

Angela Pappas (2007-2008)

Marguerite Koepke, ASLA (2005-2006)

Naomi Sachs, ASLA (2002-2004)
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Mark Epstein, ASLA, Co-Chair (1999-2002)

Jack Carman, FASLA, Co-Chair (1999-2002)