Underground counselors: The chaplains helping transit workers cope

New York

By the time the Rev. Kelmy Rodriquez became a chaplain, he knew what it meant to want someone who would listen. 

At the age of 8, he lost his mother to gun violence. When he was 22, his wife, who was pregnant, was killed in a drive-by shooting. He struggled with drug use and homelessness, as well as a loss of faith, until a religious experience more than two decades ago changed his trajectory.

For more than 10 years, Mr. Rodriquez worked as an emergency medical technician, where he saved lives but also was troubled by the deaths he couldn’t stop. In 2015, he graduated from seminary school, compelled to prevent some of the suffering he had witnessed. 

Why We Wrote This

While religion is declining in the U.S., the use of chaplains is growing in workplaces as employers see spiritual care as crucial to employee well-being. The New York subway system typifies this trend, using 68 volunteer chaplains to offer guidance and counseling to workers.

This personal mission has led him to an unlikely place – the labyrinth of tunnels that make up New York City’s sprawling subway system. Mr. Rodriquez started volunteering as a chaplain with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in 2019.

Chaplains typically provide religious services for firefighters, soldiers, hospital staff, and prison inmates – populations with high rates of trauma, stress, and burnout. But Mr. Rodriquez saw a need for spiritual and emotional support among transit workers, and the agency was in the midst of expanding its chaplain force. Since then, he’s counseled workers going through financial difficulties, attended wakes and funerals, visited people in the hospital, and showed up at the scene of train collisions.

“I made a deal many years ago,” says Mr. Rodriquez, “and I’m keeping up my end of the bargain. … If I can make a difference in someone’s personal life, I’m happy.” 

New York’s transit chaplain program underscores the growth of spiritual counseling in workplaces across the country. Though church attendance and mainstream religion may be declining in the U.S., the use of chaplains is becoming more common as employers increasingly see spiritual care as a crucial part of employee well-being, experts say. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Transit chaplain and priest Kelmy Rodriquez stands among passengers on the Queensboro Plaza platform, where several subway lines stop in the New York borough of Queens.

At the MTA, chaplains fill a gap that mental health services and other employee assistance programs may not always be able to reach. They aid workers who have to shoulder the burdens of mental illness, poverty, and resentment that affect millions of the system’s riders. The chaplains have become de facto therapists and counselors, shepherding employees through everything from traumatic experiences at work to family problems at home. 

“The MTA really wants to invest in the employees and their families,” says George Anastasiou, the agency’s chief chaplain. 

Consulting with a chaplain, he notes, is often the best way for them “to deal with getting through their grief, a death of a loved one, or a traumatic experience that they witnessed at work. So there is a great number of employees that seek solace and comfort in their time of pain.”

With COVID-19 still affecting many in New York City, the MTA’s chaplains face the added burden of helping transit workers process the loss of their colleagues, family, and friends, and cope with other disruptions caused by the pandemic. The coronavirus has so far killed more than 160 transit employees, and plunging ridership has led to a budget crisis that threatens much-needed jobs.

Mr. Rodriquez recalls speaking to a station agent whose aunt had just died of COVID-19 and who was struggling to deal with the pain. He told her that he understood, that he too had lost someone, but that focusing on the good memories would help keep that person alive in her heart. For the first time since the start of their conversation, he saw her smile. 

“I will not lie, she did cry in the booth,” Mr. Rodriquez says. “She actually exited the booth with her mask on and hugged me and cried in my arms. And I gave her my number; I said I’m always available.” 

“My goal was to make everybody feel like a family, regardless of what level or position you were in. No issue was off the table – you could say anything that was on your mind.” – Rabbi Harry Berkowitz, who founded the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chaplain program in 1985

The roots of chaplaincy in the U.S. date back to the Revolutionary War, when military chaplains accompanied soldiers fighting against the British. But over time, workplaces began to employ chaplains as well. They roamed factories during the Industrial Revolution. High-stress occupations such as policing and firefighting have used them since the early 20th century. The idea of a transit chaplain, though, is relatively recent and in the U.S. remains rare. New York and other transit agencies, such as in the San Francisco Bay Area, use chaplains to aid transit police but the MTA corps is unique in counseling bus and subway workers. 

The MTA got its first chaplain in 1985. That year, Rabbi Harry Berkowitz founded the program after spending seven years as a volunteer chaplain with the New York City Transit Police – patrolling the subways with transit officers, earning their trust, and helping build morale in an agency that was often seen as a lesser version of the New York Police Department. When David Gunn, then the president of the New York City Transit Authority and lead architect of the subway’s renaissance after the turbulent 1970s, asked Mr. Berkowitz to expand his duties to cover all MTA employees, the rabbi took up the cause.

“My goal was to make everybody feel like a family, regardless of what level or position you were in,” says the bearded Mr. Berkowitz, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, a neighborhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn. “No issue was off the table – you could say anything that was on your mind.”

Over the next few years, Mr. Berkowitz visited every transit district in the city, established a medical rescue unit within the chaplaincy, and printed brochures promoting the program to distribute among MTA employees. He also prepared the organization to respond to any crisis – a mission that was tested after 9/11, when chaplains from around New York City and the tri-state area responded to ground zero and counseled first responders. 

One of these was Sister Maureen Skelly, a nun and former volunteer transit police chaplain who retired in 2007 after 25 years with the MTA. At the time of the attacks, she was working at a Jesuit retreat on New York’s Staten Island, where police, firefighters, and anyone else who had to do the difficult work of sifting through debris and searching for bodies showed up for a hot meal and, increasingly, spiritual guidance. Transit workers, too, were among them – as many as 4,000 MTA employees spent time at the site where the towers fell, searching for survivors and removing debris. Some then went back to their regular jobs keeping the city’s transit system moving. 

“You couldn’t imagine it if you tried,” says Ms. Skelly, referring to the months she spent counseling workers at the Jesuit retreat, Mount Manresa. “When you saw the looks on their faces, the tiredness of them, you saw them trying to get on the bus and they just wanted to get off the bus and go home. But they couldn’t.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“When you saw the looks on their faces, the tiredness of them, you saw them trying to get on the bus and they just wanted to get off … and go home. But they couldn’t.” – Sister Maureen Skelly (right), a former transit police chaplain, sitting with Sister Grozyna and talking about counseling workers who searched for survivors after 9/11

Many were also dealing with personal loss – 150 family members of MTA employees were killed, according to Mr. Berkowitz. “They cried, they got mad,” says Ms. Skelly. “It took a long time to want to go on a bus again. But little by little they came back to themselves.” 

Mr. Berkowitz was hired full time by the MTA in 1993 and served as the transit system’s chief chaplain until he retired in 2019, leaving the role to Mr. Anastasiou, a Greek Orthodox priest and former transit police chaplain. But over three decades at the agency, Mr. Berkowitz aimed to build up a roster of chaplains to cover as much of the city as possible, which is how he came to recruit the Rev. Michael Gelfant, a priest at Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish in southern Queens. 

In 2010, Mr. Gelfant, who was then at a parish in southern Brooklyn, got a call from Mr. Berkowitz. He asked if Mr. Gelfant was interested in becoming a chaplain with the MTA. When the priest said no, the rabbi kept calling, until Mr. Gelfant finally relented. “He said, ‘We won’t call you too often.’ That was in October,” Mr. Gelfant says. In November, suicides on the tracks started to rise, as they tend to do each winter, and Mr. Gelfant was out on a call almost every night. 

Like other volunteer chaplains who form a “rapid response team” for the MTA, Mr. Gelfant was on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he recalls in a 2019 interview. He could get a text or a call at any hour, mostly from Brooklyn but also from Staten Island, Queens, the Bronx, or even Long Island. He usually entered a situation knowing little more than a location and a basic description – train derailment, attack on a conductor, death on the tracks.

“I was a little apprehensive at the beginning, but seeing – I don’t want to say the success of it, because there really is no success in any of this – but maybe the fruit of the labor at the moment of trauma and need makes it worth getting up and going in a split second or in the middle of the night,” Mr. Gelfant says. “So that’s why I keep doing it.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Subway train tracks lead to the above-ground Queensboro Plaza platform in the New York borough of Queens.

Sometimes he had to rush straight to a hospital if a bus or train operator was injured on the job. He recalls one train conductor who was sprayed with bleach, and a bus operator who was stabbed with a hypodermic needle. Twice he had to minister to employees whose co-workers had been hit by trains. Illnesses and accidents, such as someone falling down the stairs, were his territory, too.

At such scenes, Mr. Gelfant headed for the crew first. He checked whether they needed medical attention and prayed with them if they requested it. He would give a blessing to a passenger or bystander if he was asked to – most people recognized him as a Roman Catholic priest by his vestments – but says he wasn’t there to proselytize or lead mass prayer sessions. He tried not to get in the way of the police or firefighters while also making sure the train operators knew he was available if needed. 

“Sometimes [the operators are] strong – they’ll say ‘I’m all right,’ but in private they’ll break down,” Mr. Gelfant says. “No one is ever all right.” 

Later, many train operators would confess their feelings of guilt and helplessness, their conviction that they should have acted faster or done more to stop the train in time. Mr. Gelfant tried to talk them through those thoughts and come to terms with what happened. 

“Trains don’t stop at the drop of a dime; there’s nothing you can do,” he says. “You hit the emergency brake and that’s it. But they still believe that they killed someone, that they murdered someone. … And that’s when we have to say, ‘No, let me help you rephrase that.’” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

American flags decorate cars on many of the city’s subway trains.

Today, the MTA has 68 volunteer chaplains and several full-time paid administrators, who help organize counseling sessions and send out requests when chaplains are needed at the site of an emergency. Human-train collisions, referred to in transit parlance as a “12-9,” happen frequently. In 2020, the MTA recorded 169 of them, about a third of which were fatal.

But the chaplains also visit hospitals, offer marriage or grief counseling, say prayers at graduations, and perform religious services at wakes, funerals, baptisms, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. MTA workers and their family members can request to talk to a chaplain of any faith, and the chaplains also walk through subway stations and bus depots, checking in with workers and letting them know there’s someone to talk to.

Sometimes, workers don’t want to talk about a specific traumatic experience but simply about the challenges they face on the job. A 2005 report from the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that city transit workers were sometimes attacked by disgruntled passengers and faced constant pressure to adhere to schedules. They reported being exposed to toxic substances, getting lost in subway tunnels, and seeing co-workers shot to death.  

But the traumas that chaplains respond to don’t always have to be work-related. They also counsel employees through family adversity, accompanying police, for instance, during death notifications or personally reaching out to family members if an MTA employee has been killed.

When Rosetta Simmons’ husband, a train conductor, died by suicide in June 2001, Mr. Berkowitz showed up at her door in East Harlem. Ms. Simmons, who at the time worked as a train operator for the MTA, says it didn’t matter that she was a Baptist and Mr. Berkowitz was Jewish – he talked to her about her feelings, not about her faith. 

The visit was unexpected, she says, but it provided much-needed comfort at a time when she was going through her own struggles with mental health. 

“It showed that they really care,” Ms. Simmons says. “Because most of the time, you know, you feel you’re just a number.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Mr. Rodriquez holds his rosary and wears his chaplain badge. In his job as a volunteer chaplain, he counsels workers, attends funerals, visits people in the hospital, and shows up at the scene of train collisions.

For much of American history, the institution of chaplaincy remained rooted in Christianity, and specifically Protestantism. But as American religious demographics have changed, so have chaplains, who now focus less on approaching someone from the viewpoint of their particular faith and more on listening to people’s problems and offering general spiritual guidance.

In many cases, the experience of talking to a chaplain doesn’t have to be overtly religious at all, and chaplains are taught to “be present without proselytizing,” says Trace Haythorn, executive director of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, which provides training and certification programs for chaplains.

The results of a Gallup survey released in March show that less than half of American adults belonged to a religious congregation in 2020, compared with 70% in 1999. At the same time, the proportion of Americans identifying as “spiritual but not religious” has grown, Dr. Haythorn says. “We actually see this as an important, if not clarion, call to chaplaincy to step into the gap, simply because people may not be affiliating with congregations, but they still have spiritual needs,” Dr. Haythorn says. “And they’re looking for ways to get those addressed.”

Chaplains often come into contact with people who may have mental illness, which requires them to determine how much they can do and how much should be left up to licensed practitioners. Chaplains work in concert with other professionals assisting employees who are going through a difficult time, including at the MTA, which offers mental health counseling and referral services to all employees. 

But chaplains may be better equipped to respond in the event of a crisis or address an urgent need, while also serving as a bridge to other services, Dr. Haythorn says. Many are trained in clinical pastoral education, a program that teaches chaplains how to take a holistic approach to health care that incorporates physical, mental, and spiritual elements.

“When chaplains are doing their work, the person in front of them is the center of their attention. And that person recognizes them as such, so that they really feel that they are being emotionally, spiritually held in that moment,” he says. “In a setting like public transit, they are introducing people to the resources that are available to them, and being able to provide that kind of confidential support so that the employee knows that they’ve got an ally within the system.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“I didn’t ask for financial support, I’m not asking for anything, but it was very emotional. It was very helpful. These people never saw me, they never talked to me. And they showed up at the funeral.” – Igor Kruglyak, an electromechanical maintenance worker for the transit authority, referring to three chaplains who attended his father’s funeral

The chaplains’ counseling skills have become all the more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as transit workers have faced personal losses as well as professional difficulties. The Transportation Research Board, a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, is in the planning stages of a study to measure the “mental health implications of the stress of exposure, illness, and potential death” from the virus on public transit workers, who in most cases were classified as essential workers who could not stay home.

Dr. Haythorn says that pandemic-related budget cuts to service have also upset riders, who can take their frustration out on employees. Mr. Rodriquez, for one, has seen his call requests from concerned and grieving transit workers triple in number since the start of the pandemic. 

Sometimes the chaplains will offer support even if they aren’t summoned. In September 2014, Igor Kruglyak’s father died, and three chaplains from the MTA came to the funeral unexpectedly. Mr. Kruglyak, who has done electromechanical maintenance for the MTA since 2007, says the chaplains gave him a card and let him know he could call them at any time. Later, when Mr. Kruglyak, who is Jewish, wanted to take a day off to observe Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism, he called the chaplain’s office to help negotiate with a supervisor who was trying to get him to come in to work. Throughout both events, he says, he was grateful for the emotional support that the chaplains provided. 

“I didn’t ask for financial support, I’m not asking for anything, but it was very emotional. It was very helpful,” Mr. Kruglyak says. “These people never saw me, they never talked to me. And they showed up at the funeral.” 

For many transit workers, even if they don’t end up discussing their emotions, spirituality, or religion, just having someone there makes a difference.

“The gift of chaplaincy practice,” Dr. Haythorn says, “is presence.”

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