Stories of Healing

October 15, 2014
Nancy Cahners and Mel Kawakami
HDS alums Nancy Cahners and Mel Kawakami. / Photo: Justin Knight

In an equally emotional and inspirational conversation, a pair of HDS alumni recently shared stories of how they helped individuals, communities, and themselves navigate through dark times.

Nancy Cahners, MTS '03, and Mel Kawakami, MDiv '74, ThM '87, spoke on October 9 about their experiences at HDS—and their work after graduation—to a packed audience on the Divinity School campus as part of the first Divinity Dialogues event of the 2014-15 academic year.

Cahners, an interfaith chaplain at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale, Massachusetts, said she wanted to share stories about how the center's patients had actually helped her.

She recalled spending time with an elderly man who had few visitors and who was unable to lift his neck off of his chest, making it difficult for him to see people standing in his room talking to him. After a few moments with him, Cahners decided that she needed to make eye contact with him, so she got down onto the floor so the man wouldn't have to strain himself to see her as they conversed. After positioning herself on the floor, she looked up and saw the man's wide, bright smile.

"For a long time I would say, 'What am I accomplishing?' " Cahners said. "I have this little image of a thimble that I keep with me. What I offer fits in a thimble, that's all. It wasn’t zero, it was that."

Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Kawakami, senior pastor at Newtown United Methodist Church in Connecticut, said "it seemed as though the darkness would take over."

However, the healing process was aided by the response from a collaboration of faith groups.

"The interfaith community worked together in the midst of that great darkness to remember the light," he said. "There was that kind of cooperation, which really helped the Newtown community make it through.

"We asked questions like: 'Why did this happen? Why would God allow this? What's evil in the world? Why us?' So those kinds of questions became a context in which faith and hope really played out."

Their experiences as healers were shaped in part through their time at HDS.

For Kawakami, HDS helped him learn how to think critically on issues and problems.

"I remember the first class in which I was actually asked a question. I sat speechless because the issue was not a matter of what I knew; it was what I thought about it."

For Cahners, coming to HDS and being a part of a multireligious community was a learning experience.

"I have found, too often, folks are ready to find refuge in fear and hatred of the other," she explained. "And I really learned how not to do that here."

—by Michael Naughton