Podcast 11 Lenny Burrison, working with patients experiencing homelessness

Jan 7, 2020 | FaithHealth Podcast

Nathaniel “Lenny” Burrison is an ordained non-denominational minister; he is endorsed by the Association of Evangelical Gospel Assemblies (AEGA).  Lenny earned his B.A from The University of North Carolina-Greensboro and his M.Div. from Liberty University, with a concentration in chaplaincy.  Lenny completed a unit of Level 1 CPE at the Salisbury VAMC, and a 2-year CPE residency at WFBH.  Lenny is the Staff Chaplain for Transitional Care, where he partners with FaithHealth and other community resource organizations to provide support to community members facing crisis due to housing and other psychosocial needs.  In addition, Lenny is in the process of planting a church, Fresh Word Outreach Ministries, in East Spencer, N.C.

Emily ViveretteViverette: This is the FaithHealth Learning Forum Podcast, a podcast series designed to offer insights into the Division of FaithHealthNC, a dynamic partnership between Faith Communities, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and other healthcare providers focused on improving health. I’m Emily Viverette, Director of FaithHealth Chaplaincy and Education. This particular series focuses on mining the wisdom of key leaders within the division of FaithHealth ministry at our hospital. Today I’m talking with Reverend Nathaniel Burrison, III who goes by Lenny.

Lenny is the chaplain for Transitional and Supportive Care in the Department of Faith, Health Chaplaincy and Education at Wake Forest. Lenny is an ordained minister who serves a local congregation as well as a full time chaplain. Lenny is a native of NC and a veteran. In his position, he works closely with patients who are experiencing homelessness, as well as the community partners who provide resources for this population. Lenny, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Burrison: It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

Viverette: So before we move into kind of the specifics of your work, could you say a little bit about how you got to chaplaincy?

Burrison: Wow. I don’t think we have three days for that, but abridged version is, I had a very profound experience with my paternal grandmother who was placed in a facility, and kind of seeing what happened with her there, kind of spurred my curiosity about what it looks like to support people, particularly when my focus was with end of life type of issues. Seeing her progression, let’s say, in that particular location is where the seed was planted. And so, went to seminary and around that time I got the feeling that I needed more hands-on application because I knew that chaplaincy was something that I was really feeling called to, and was just blessed to be one of the first participants in the Salisbury VA Medical Center CPE program, one of their first ones.

After that, my plan was really to kind of go back to working where I was working at before, but just being invested in getting the educational experience that I received there prompted me to go forward and to pursue a residency with Wake Forest Baptist Hospital for about a year and a half, two years, and it just kind of progressed from there. After that, I did some time doing a lot of hospice work with a local hospice organization, and opportunity presented itself to kind of provide some support in a very radical way than what I’d seen done elsewhere, and so it intrigued my interest, and I decided, “Hey, let’s, let’s try it.”

Viverette: So you left hospice and came back to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. You left kind of end of life work, which is a little bit of what drew you into chaplaincy to begin with. What was exciting, or radical, or interesting about the role that you’re currently in that brought you to it?

Burrison: Well it’s all about timing, right? I think really at that stage I was… let me say this, I was very, very comfortable with where I was. I had an excellent team and quite honestly when I was approached, my first response was no, because I was relatively good at what I was doing, and really felt connected to the work there. But around that same time, I also started pursuing planning a small congregation in my local community where I reside. And kind of seeing where the location ended up being, and seeing some of the social issues that were taking place there when this opportunity presented itself it just kind of, it basically just aligned with the ministry aspect of what I saw the church plan to be. I was like, “Hey, this is just happening at the right time,” and definitely saw how I could benefit from a ministry standpoint about what I would learn, and when I would experience, what I would do through what I’m doing now.

Viverette: In the intro, I said a little bit about what your work is, and the population with which your kind of focus. Could you say a little bit more about what… so what are you doing? What is transitional and supportive care? That’s a kind of a fancy title.

Burrison: It is.

Viverette: And it means lots of different things in different institutions.

Burrison: Absolutely.

Viverette: It’s not the same thing in every institution, but in our institution, for you and your work, what does that mean?

Burrison: I will say this, what it has morphed into is primarily engaging and supporting individuals who are experiencing chronic homelessness. On a broader view, I would say transitional supportive care. It’s really trying to be an anchor or connection, let’s say, between individuals who have been identified as having significant health problems in multiple visits. So how do we kind of bring healthcare to them in a way that helps to support and cultivate, for lack of a better word, their health, so that they don’t have to find themselves utilizing the emergency room, or other high-cost services as much. Bringing the care to them. I’d say the foundation, I’ll say, of what I’m doing was actually paved, or set up by the chaplain who was here before me, a wonderful a person, Reverend Graylin Carlton. He kind of laid the foundation. He had a background in working with individuals with homelessness. So it was his gift and his skill that kind of cultivated what I’m doing right now. I just was able to step on some of the foundation that he had already laid, as far as targeting that particular population of our community.

Viverette: I don’t know very many hospitals that have a chaplain focused in this specific area. I’m curious, and you and I’ve talked about this off and on from time to time, how do you understand this work is ministry? Some people might say, “Oh, well this is just case management. Why isn’t case management doing this?” How do you understand your role as a chaplain being important here?

Burrison: Wow, that’s a loaded question, and it’s hard. I find that my understanding is grounded in my understanding of what we are called to be as followers of Christ. As a minister and as I read the entire breadth of scripture, and I see like in the Psalms, how God shows such a concern for the poor and the oppressed, and we look through from the beginning to the end, his concern on the least of these, and the oppressed, and those who have been marginalized. For me, it’s just a natural evolution or a natural progression of how I express my faith, and make it in. A lot of times what I’m finding is, by working with our community members who are experiencing homelessness is that, at some point, regardless of their theological perspective, they were engaged or attached to some type of faith community, and for whatever reason that has been separated. So to kind of be a newer face or a newer perspective, for lack of a better word, to something that they at least had some type of an affiliation with in the past, it’s meaningful. That’s what I feel like really that I’m called to do in this season, in particular, is just to let them know that they are loved. That they are made in the image of a loving creator.

For so many of them, society and others have kind of beat them down, or are giving them that impression that because of their status, that they’re not worthy of love or respect, and that their humanity is somewhat less than, and so, just really feel like it’s our call, as people of faith to affirm who they are as a children of the creator.

Viverette: That’s really beautiful, and it’s one of the beautiful things I feel like I get to witness is between you and Karen Kimbrell, who’s our senior secretary or administrator that sits at the front desk, who welcomes our guests that come in. That between the two of you, any person that comes in our front office, no matter who they are, or their background gets treated with respect.

Burrison: Absolutely.

Viverette: I’m really grateful for the ways in which you and Karen are always serving, because you sit right by the front desk. I mean you’re the first person people are going to see when they walk in past Karen.

Burrison: Absolutely.

Viverette: That’s beautiful. Thanks for being willing to share kind of that part of your passion. I’m curious, so why is this so important that it’s a part of FaithHealth?

Burrison: Wow. Well it’s important because it aligns with the mission of FaithHealth in so many ways. We talk about right door, right time, never alone. That’s the thing that kind of sticks out to me the most, is this idea of walking with someone who typically does have medical issues, and has a mental illness or dealing with substance use disorder of some sort. This whole concept that’s grounded in FaithHealth of the walking with, the never alone aspect of it aligns to me perfectly with what our vision is.

Viverette: I’m wondering, your background in chaplaincy and my background in chaplaincy, one of the things I realized over the course of my career is, I often learn way more from my patients than I do from anyone else. And I’m curious, is there any kind of learning, or what have you learned that surprised you from people you’re working with every day?

Burrison: Biggest thing that I’ve… well not the biggest, it’s so many actually, but I’ll name just one or two. I think the one thing that I’ve learned is that we need to re-evaluate our perceptions when it comes to how we perceive people who are experiencing homelessness. There’s always that stigma of, “Oh, this person, they don’t want to work,” or “Oh they just,” you fill in the blank. But having interacted with them, there are some beautifully gifted individuals who, I mean the wisdom that they have, the life story that they have, it’s just so fascinating. It’s humbling actually because there are so many brilliant people that are out there that for whatever reason they just find themselves in this particular position right now. I think that’s been one of the biggest things is, the aha moments for me, it’s just trying to hold, or tear apart that stigma, that even I, to some extent probably had when first encountering or first pursuing this work. And just realizing and recognizing the amazing gifts that are found even in individuals that are in this particular situation.

Secondly, a word that keeps coming up in my mind is resiliency. How resilient people can be in some of the most despondent states where you and I wouldn’t even imagine being able to function, but not only are they functioning, in some senses they’re thriving despite what the greater society would see as a pretty horrific living condition. That definitely continues to humble and amaze me.

Viverette: Well, again, I’m grateful for the ways in which you engage people who come in our doors, and see their gifts and what they have to offer the world, and help remind all of us of the importance of caring for everybody. It’s powerful. It’s a powerful work to be able to do that, and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it in a very tiny way. I’m curious about… I want to protect people’s privacy, so I don’t want you to share more than you can. Can you think of a time where you felt, and maybe it wasn’t with a particular person, maybe it’s just something else about your work, where you felt like, “This was a success. I’m doing this and this is a success, and I’m…” maybe it’s not because of you. You won’t claim that it’s because of you. I know you well enough, but something that you look back on, you’re like, this is what it’s about.

Burrison: Oh, almost every day there’s something that you can hold on to. I’ll say one that stands out in particular was really a community collaborative effort that happened with a community member who was a single parent, had several small children, and long story short, just found themselves in a really a precarious situation. While I was able to kind of be a supportive presence and reach out, in conjunction with our FaithHealth intake coordinator, and just some other community partners who really just came together and said, “Hey, we’re going to… whatever needs to happen, we’re going to make this happen for this family.” And so a lot of creative thinking and financial resources went into it. But the end result was that we were able to get this person and her family housed, and just to hear… still hear from her from time to time and she’s thriving. All she needed was just a base, I like to say, a base of operation to be successful. Once that uncertainty was removed, she was able to focus on what she needed to, to further advance what she wanted to do in her life, and the betterment of her children. Seeing something like that, and again, just the, the collaboration of different organizations was really, really a powerful thing to be a part of.

Viverette: That’s one of the things that I’ve watched from a distance, your capacity to build partnerships and collaborate with a broad range of people. Because it does seem like in some situations, it just takes an enormous amount of resources right up front. But if you’re able to get that, it does make a difference.

Burrison: Absolutely.

Viverette: So who have been… so we’ll get to… well maybe I’ll move into this question now, but, so if there’s someone who’s kind of interested in doing this kind of work, what advice would you give to them, both in terms of where to start, but also partnerships?

Burrison: Wow. I don’t know if I’m answering the question, but one thing that I would definitely suggest to anyone who may have an interest in this type of a ministry is to understand that the lone ranger only exists in the movies or on a TV show. Be willing to work and to try to foster relationships with other individuals, or other organizations, or whoever it may be. I think when I’ve started early on, I was under the impression, the false impression that, “Hey, I’ve got to figure everything out for this person, and I’ve got to be everything for this individual.” You learn quickly that, that’s just impossible, and so what you can be is a support as you, kind of hand off, for lack of a better word, to the support that’s best suited to meet that particular need that the person has.

You’re kind of there as an informal or a formal support, but being willing and able to figure out where the need is, who has the resources to meet that need, and then try to get all the pieces together, and be willing to be that conduit, if you will, to make a [inaudible] for lack of a better word. I think that’s one of the major things. Definitely another suggestion would be to certainly be able to take care of yourself, which-

Viverette: How do you do that?

Burrison: I’m still learning actually. I always tell people some of the things that you see, you can’t unsee and that’s for chaplaincy as a whole. But when you’re really out there in the woods and you’re out there in abandoned houses and you see the depths of human despair, right? It stays with you and you try to go back to your world or to where you find safe haven back to your home, and many times I find myself at home but not at home. I’ve had to learn how to, as much as I possibly can, compartmentalize, I guess is the word that I want to use, as far as when I’m home, I need to be present because I have a family.

Sometimes there’s feelings of guilt that you feel because, “Hey, look at what I have, in comparison to those who I’m working with.” So I think healthy boundaries is another thing. As far as the self-care aspect, it’s really just about intentionality. How do you become attentional about, I am going to take X, Y, Z time for me so that I can be what I need to be in process, what I need to process so that I can help the next person, the next family that’s coming around.

Viverette: I think you spoke to something, in chaplaincy often, and my background’s always been in kind of medical center chaplaincy, whether it was a VA or hospital. I’d never thought about how safe hospital chaplaincy was or I mean being inside the walls in some ways we see terrible, horrible things, but it’s always within a very kind of in inside four walls, and we don’t really see what people go home to. And so there’s a way in which maybe as a medical center chaplain, I can leave things at the medical center a little bit easier cause I don’t even know what it looks like beyond the walls for this particular family, but to carry… You alluded to the fact that your job is not just inside the office, that you’re actually going out in the community, seeing people, finding people. Could you say a little bit about, you know, I know there’s no such thing as an average day in any chaplaincy experience, but what does it look like?

Burrison: Really, it just depends on what’s going on. I work with a of organizations out in the community. I will say that on a typical day it’s going to comprise of two things. One of course, individuals who may be either in the hospital coming into the office, or maybe even out in the streets, coming into the office and trying to find some type of assistance. Then also, I may be working with an organization or some community members and they say, “Hey, we’ve identified,” let’s say a campsite, or, “We identified a place where we believe some individuals may be staying. Let’s just go do some outreach and see what’s going on,” and so in those instances, I will go out with them as well.

A lot of shelter contacts, that type of thing, for individuals that I may have engaged already, and I know that they’re at a shelter, or I know that they’re around the shelter, and that we’re just trying to continue to cultivate relationships, in order to get to the next step of trying to eventually get them housed. It really is just pick your day and see what’s going on.

Viverette: Because you work some with The Empowerment Project, right?

Burrison: Yes.

Viverette: Or the empowerment team. Could you say a little bit about what that is and…

Burrison: Yes. The Empowerment Project is a a street outreach team and they provide short term case management to individuals who are identified as chronically homeless, and who also typically suffer from, either a mental illness disorder or a substance use disorder. They are what, I would consider, some of the front line individuals as it relates to identifying and engaging with individuals who are out there in the streets. That’s actually the team that I was kind of referencing, because most of my outreach in the woods and other areas, I’ll say, have been with them in particular. They do a lot of case management to get folks connected with the housing resources or the housing programs that are in Winston Salem/Forsyth County.

Viverette: It’s interesting. I had forgotten until you started talking that your role actually emerged out of a second year chaplaincy residency placement with The Empowerment Project. That one’s Reverend Graylin Carlton. So he was the first chaplain resident in that position. Then he became the first fully paid staff chaplain in that position. When he moved on, you came in and taken it up and are creating that role in a new way, but an important way too.

Burrison: I’m trying. He’s got big shoes to fill, but I’m trying to fit into them.

Viverette: Yeah. Well, and I do think that you’re creating your own way. I think you’ve done a lot of creative partnering in the community, too, that’s been really helpful to make this role sustainable in different ways. Graylin did great job and every… that’s one of the unique things about FaithHealth, is I think the people who are in these positions really have the freedom to create and generate kind of new ways of being in their role, in ways that kind of fit the context and what needs to happen. That’s a real gift. All right, so I’m going to ask you to switch hats just a little bit, because you did mention, and I mentioned earlier that you’re also a pastor in a congregation, and you’re actually starting your own congregation over the past… you just celebrated a year anniversary not too long ago.

Burrison: Yes, ma’am. Thank you.

Viverette: Congratulations.

Burrison: Thank you so much.

Viverette: So being in that role, how do you see that medical centers or hospitals in general could really be better partners in the community?

Burrison: Well as an old saying, “You have not because you ask not,” and I think that from a medical center perspective, I know that there have been some, let’s say reaching out to the faith community, but I would like to see more intentional and more frequent reaching out because there are a lot of things and I feel like the faith community could do to help support some of the work that’s going on in a medical context, right? If it’s nothing more than just showing a supportive presence or having people willing to bring snacks and goodies, which I know we do at our medical center as well. But it seems like it’s always the same handful of faith community organizations that are tasked with that. I don’t know if that’s just their heart, or if there’s been enough outreach to the ones that are out there to say, “Hey look, we have a way for you to support the people in the medical center, because let’s face it, your congregants are coming here.” And so how can we make it so that they feel at home as much as home as possible in every area of their life, or of their stay I’ll say, at the medical center. I think that will be a good step just letting the faith community know that there is a role for them to play at the medical center.

Viverette: As you think about kind of your congregation and what you all are working on, what sorts of things—you’re not committing to anything—but what do you see as like the gifts that congregations could bring to a medical center? Like if the medical center were to do a better job of really reaching out and communicating and letting people know that we really feel like we can provide better care if we made you partners. How can we better partner with you?

Burrison: Well one thing is that from the ministry level itself, with that partnership, it helps to encourage individuals to be more proactive about their health care. And so having that relationship and having that back and forth, if you will, I think it will help from the ministry side because, we receive information from the medical center about, “Hey, these are some of the things that we’re seeing, as far as issues with diabetes, or whatever the case may be, medical issues that seem to be impacting your congregation, your community,” however you want to frame it. Then that’s a learning opportunity within a ministry context, where it’s more relational for conversations to be had about how to improve or how to maintain your health.

Viverette: So here’s maybe the last question because I meant to ask it earlier, so I’m sorry to kind of jump back into your work with the medical center and with the community. What do you see as the greatest challenges? What are the most challenging things that you have to deal with on a daily basis? If we had a magic wand, like what would make it better for our community members who are experiencing homelessness?

Burrison: Do you really want me to answer this one?

Viverette: Of course. I wouldn’t of asked.

Burrison: So from my experience, and I was being facetious of course, but, if I had a magic wand, it would be two things. Financial resources, number one, and number two, a greater sense of urgency from both the institution and the community at large that this is something worthy of pursuing as far as combating or dealing with the systemic issues that lead to our community members who are facing homelessness.

And if I may expand on that, I think we know that a problem is there. We know that these people exist. We know that they’re coming into the hospital, but I feel as if sometimes it’s seen as, this is someone else’s responsibility to fix or to tackle. I’ll say that from an institutional level, and I’ll say that, in some respects, from a community level. We have amazing community partners that are out there that have a heart to address this issue, but there’s only a handful. The problem is so much bigger than just this handful of our organizations. So I would really like to see people get a heart to try to tackle this from that perspective and not say, “Okay, we’re here as the two or three organizations who are helping the homeless, go there.” And that’s fine, but how do we then support those organizations so that they’re able to more effectively carry on their mission as well?

Viverette: Well, I mean, and it does, I think in general, anything that has systemic causes, our society has a hard time having the attention span for, and that so much of the resources for our community members experiencing homelessness, are focused on kind of short-term immediate housing in some way, but not the long… how do we help people get into a more sustainable place?

Burrison: Absolutely.

Viverette: It’s really hard.

Burrison: This is a whole other conversation.

Viverette: It is a whole other level… who knows, we’ll probably have some part two later on.

Burrison: I look forward to it.

Viverette: Yeah. Well, Lenny, thank you so much for your time today. I know you’re busy. I appreciate you coming down to talk with us.

Burrison: Thank you so much for having me.


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