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COVID-19 fundamentally changed how we work. In our series "At Work," we hear from folks in the Bay Area about how what they do has changed.

Bees and bettering the tech world: a Stanford Chaplain Fellow

I meet Anannda at an intentional living community in Oakland, where she hands me a beekeeper suit that’s all white – a color that relaxes bees. We head out into the large backyard: a garden of flowers, herbs, fruits and crops, chickens in a coop, and a few dogs playing chase.

"Okay, so game plan: when we get in there, so I don't have smoke, I just have the almond oil, which will smell great to us, but the bees will be like: ‘aaahh what are you doing? ...’"

As we near the bustling hive, I feel a twinge of nerves. Normal people get scared when a bee lands on their sandwich, but Anannda confidently moves through hundreds. In fact, between her two hives, there live around fifty thousand bees.

Anannda tells me that if you’ve ever seen a honey bee gathering nectar or pollen, that bee was an elder. Bees age through different roles in the hive, and their final task before they die is to leave home, in order to forage and ensure the health of their colony.

“What does it mean to like go out and to provide for something far greater than yourself? And I hope the work that I do as a chaplain is also that, like, how do we help fortify seven generations after?”

So, as a chaplain, what does Anannda do?

“I literally sit with people and accompany them where they are emotionally and spiritually on their journey…”

So it’sdifferent than seeing a therapist or a psychologist – it’s professional, compassionate listening – whether in a hospital, the military, prisons, or schools. And Anannda is open to everybody, no matter their spiritual, religious beliefs, or the lack thereof.

“...and contrary to popular belief, I don't proselytize, even though I do identify as Christian and am a Presbyterian minister of word in sacrament."

Breaking away from what has been, until very recent history, the norm for chaplains, and for Presbyterian religious figures, Anannda is not a straight, white person.

“I got ordained in a church in Silicon Valley, uh, First Pres Palo Alto, shout out, um, they ordained this queer black woman. So I’m thankful.”

Anannda didn’t always know she wanted to go into priesthood and later become a chaplain. In the late two thousands, she was studying at Illinois College for the LSATs, with the goal of becoming a lawyer when:

“I felt like I heard God's spirit say ‘you're going to seminary,’ and I was like, haha, you got jokes.”

So, reluctantly, she made a deal with God: she wouldn’t stop partying and enjoying college. But, if she was accepted to every single divinity school that she applied for, she would go through with it.

"And I got into every seminary I applied for. So I was like, well, crap. Okay, I'll keep my end of the bargain. And I come from a long line in my family of preachers and teachers. So I was like, God, I'm doing the family business.”

So, after graduating from Illinois College in 2011 with an International Studies and Spanish degree, Anannda embarked on the next chapter of her life. By 2014, she had a Master of Divinity. She considered being a missionary but didn't want to proselytize. And after being ordained to the church in Palo Alto, she realized chaplaincy was her calling.

“I remember having a patient and the patient's daughter was getting really upset at staff. Um, and so they called me in as the chaplain on that unit to be like, ‘Hey, could you sit with the patient's daughter?’”

Anannda says that the main role of chaplaincy is to look beyond a person’s behaviors - to find what the deeper-rooted causes are – often: fear.

In this case, the daughter was afraid of her mother’s prognosis, and lack of control. Eventually, Anannda was able to calm her down, so she could peacefully communicate with the staff and support her mother.

“But it takes time to do that. To sit – like, nurses don't have that kind of time, nor is that their job, right. Doctors don't have that kind of time, nor is it necessarily their job.”

The stress that occurs in places of crisis, like a hospital, can be debilitating for all parties involved. That’s why a chaplain’s role is so essential.

“Do you have any stories about one of your hardest days as a chaplain?”

“Yeah, one of my hardest days as a chaplain was a day I was on call, and on-call is a 12-hour shift. And I took the day shifts 'cause Lord knows I'm better at the day than I am at night. And it was now maybe the fifth week in a row where it was just constant death.”

This was at the height of the Covid pandemic, so before there was a vaccine. Anannda was a chaplain at Stanford Hospital in four different units, including the Oncology ICU and the Bone Marrow and Transplant unit.

“And just this repetition of families believing in miracles, 'cause they went into the hospital with their loved one responsive and so now it comes time where the patient, is in the active death process and there's a shock that happens.

Anannda sat with dying patients and their grieving families. She saw hardworking hospital staff treated with anger and denial. Not to mention the custodians, who she calls the silent heroes of the pandemic, cleaning every room.

“So that was definitely the hardest time, juggling five, six deaths a day. 'Cause that's all I was doing that day, was death.”

“Alright, beloveds. I’ve been known to give a grueling sermon per se, get down in the depths of all the things that are wrong with the world but this sermon, it touches on that but it’s a little light, alright?...”

As a kid, Anannda and her family were always moving around, between Illinois and Georgia. It was hard for her because relationships were constantly uprooted.

“And so church was one of the most consistent things in my life. No matter where I went, God is always with me. Like, and really developed a prayer life, I think out of necessity.”

Her mom, for the first half of Anannda’s life, worked in tech and did so for a total of 19 years.

“And now she's no longer in tech. So I saw some of the ways that tech really impacts, in particular, black women. And so as a pastor I was like, well how do I understand this culture that's Silicon Valley?”

Anannda is passionate about how, in human history, this is the largest period of innovation – ever.

“If we're still in an early enough construction phase, that also means we can really do some amazing things as collaborators and co-conspirators across our different professions, to make this the best that it can be.”

She says that high rates of depression and anxiety in the workplace are far too common and normal in the industry. Her role is to help those people, who are working to improve the very technology that can cause mental health dilemmas.

“Helping them recognize who they are, recognize their values, their integrity so that way they're not, you know, living lives that suck the souls out of them.”

That’s why now, she works at Stanford, as a chaplain fellow, providing services to students in STEM while conducting research.

“I think that does a great service to humanity, frankly, and a great service to the industry and I think it'll allow them and free them up to create better products for the mending of the world.”

Specifically, Anannda is working on setting a precedent for the use of evidence-based chaplaincy. She says it’s important not only to find out what kind of care is missing in the tech field but to show that it’s missing.

“So that way we have healthier people in a healthier society, you know? I don't think it's utopian, I actually think it's practical and I think it's actually a more sustainable model of business and a more sustainable model of the academy.”

Evidence-based chaplaincy already exists in clinical settings. So Anannda is pioneering the way for higher education. Already, in the year she’s been at Stanford, she’s found that she can help facilitate a discovery of self in students, as she sits with them through existential crises.

“And so what I see oftentimes with students is their worth, their sense of self is tied to their achievement.”

Anannda says relying on achievement to provide joy and self-value is highly concerning because if that disappears or disappoints, then what? And, as it turns out, this isn’t a theme found only in higher education. Those on their sick or dying beds have similar epiphanies.

“I think similarities come from crisis. Rarely do I meet a student or have I met a patient that crisis hasn't drawn out these deeper questions. So they're literally exploring joy on a very basic level, which is beautiful.”

So far, most people have seemed open to the idea of evidence-based chaplaincy and receiving care.

“Everybody I've talked to about this is like, yeah, this makes sense. Nobody's like: 'Ah, don't listen to me!' You know, 'I don't wanna share my problems. I don't wanna be a full human.' I don't have that reaction.”

How can we detach our self-worth from our accomplishments, and instead gather meaning from community, from giving back? Like the bees!

“I think that's such a lesson for us of like, what does it look like? And it doesn't have to be the last stages of our lives. Right. Cause we're not bees, um, and may that work be good enough. It has to be, but to ensure life.”

“Wow. Those bees just got really deep.”

Talking to Anannda leaves me thinking: are people like her helping students to uncover and address the same existential crises that others may not face until they find themselves close to death?

It seems like the work she’s doing here allows others to explore their own callings – before it’s too late.

Sunday is a news producer for Crosscurrents' summer training program.