"If you're gonna work for God, it doesn't mean you're gonna go into all these easy places, you know?"


Chaplain, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania
Length of service:
6 years
Other stuff:
Coordinates yearly Gospelrama celebration during Black History Month; has three grown children; is involved in research on the effects of pastoral care on pulmonary patients.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Sister Ramona Cecille, Hospital chaplain, keeps an unusual altar in her office.

Well, not an altar exactly. It’s more like a heating vent.

But covered with a serape and dotted with knickknacks, it gives off an air of serenity and humor, much like Sister Ramona herself.

There’s a wooden statue of a drummer some children gave her on the street when she was in Haiti a few years ago. And a rag doll made by a friend of hers, with one of Sister Ramona’s own dreadlocks pinned to the back of the doll’s head.

And a coin bank shaped like a grandma. “She kind of watches over me.”

Sister Ramona, “a half a century old,” is a chaplain in the oncology division. She’s also a liturgical dancer.

One bright October afternoon, in HUP’s small interfaith chapel, when Sister Ramona led a service, she danced barefoot, her hospital ID still clipped to the collar of her purple jumper, her nest of thin dreadlocks tied back in a long ponytail.

The service marked the end of National Pastoral Care Week, whose motto this year was Valuing Each Person Wholly (“that’s w-h-o-l-l-y,” Sister Ramona clarified with a laugh). “But one of my colleagues said, ‘That should be our theme every week here at the hospital.’”

And for her, it is.

Q. You started at HUP as a trauma chaplain. What’s that like?
The trauma chaplain follows up with patients who have come through the trauma bay.
Our responsibility is to get information from the patient about family so that we can call them and be with them. And then we take them back there so [the surgeon] can give them a report on what has happened, what they have found in their examination.

Sometimes it’s not good news. Sometimes it’s death. We’re the ones, of course, who are there with them, the family, to help them to cope for those first few hours of shock.

[brightens] And for those who are alive, we take them upstairs to the unit so they can get situated, so they can get to see their loved one.

Q. How do you incorporate dance into your work at the hospital?
It was really strange for me to be here and not do any kind of dance, so I talked with a recreational therapist and she said, Oh yeah, that’d be great if you could come twice a month and do spiritual movement. That’s what we call liturgical dance in the hospital.

So I go there, and the folks are mostly wheelchair bound, so I sit down with them and we do upper body movements. We do dances to “Spirit of the Living God,” you know, and Bobby McFerrin’s “Common Threads.” It’s very peaceful, and people usually say it makes them feel relaxed, but it’s also a way for them to exercise without it being painful.

Q. What does the “Sister” before your name refer to?
I’m a member of the Deaconess Community of the Lutheran Church. It’s an order and office of women in the Lutheran Church. I’ve been consecrated as a deaconess, it’s been two years, since July of 1998.

My ministry has a lot to do with helping people to grieve. When I was a trauma chaplain, I was with a lot of women who were so overwrought by things that had happened. Everything gets knocked out of them and they need someone to help them pull themselves together.

So I talk with a lot of women. It’s mostly men who come in, so there’s lots of women who come in for them, you know, mothers and girlfriends and wives. And a lot of mothers tell me that they had a dream or had a sense that something bad was going to happen to this child. Which is really amazing. I’d love to do a research project on that.

In the Rhodes 5 conference room—that’s the surgical intensive care unit, there was a young woman who had been in a car accident in high school. She was very sick, and her friends and family made peace cranes, they made 1000 of them, for the Japanese proverb that talks about, you know, you make a thousand, you get your wish, and she recovered. She graduated from high school that year, and she’s in college now. And they left a few of the peace cranes there on hangers in the Rhodes 5 waiting area as encouragement to other families.

In the oncology lab, it’s more with the patients and less with the families, because my patients can talk, and they’re there for quite a while. So what I wind up doing is helping patients talk about their faith, or lack of it, wherever they are on that journey. We do a lot of active listening and being available so people can talk about what they want to talk about. We’re not there to promote anything. We’re there to support them in a very present way.

Q. To have a job that’s always to be there to listen, you get all these troubles, all these pains and fears. Where do they go?
Where do they go? [laughs]

Q. I mean, it sounds so difficult.
A. It is very difficult. It is very, very difficult. You know, when I was told there was an opening for a trauma chaplain here, I told my supervisor, And why are you telling me this? But my experience of God, it’s not like—if you’re gonna work for God, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna go into all these easy places, you know?

So I knew that I needed to pray about it, and I felt like God was saying, You mean you don’t want to share with others how you’ve gotten through your traumas? So one thing I think that really keeps me going is that I’ve gone through traumatic things in my life, and I’m on the other side. I’m the chaplain, you know? [laughs] So that’s part of it.

The other part of it is that I really believe what I believe. I do believe that there is a resurrection. I do believe that there’s life after death. And I do believe that I don’t have the answers to these things, and I can’t make anyone well. I am powerless over death, or whatever’s gonna happen, but God is not powerless. I have to give all these things to God.


Originally published on November 9, 2000