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Apr 05 - 06 2024


1:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Formats (virtual, in person, hybrid)


Spiritual Care for the Non-Religious

Dates/Times: April 5 (1-6pm), and April 6 (9am-5pm)
Location: Online
Instructor: Mary Martha Thiel (Hebrew SeniorLife) and Ylisse Bess (Wellesley College)
Registration Deadline: March 22, 2024

Register Now

For decades, chaplaincy has been identified with religion and thus assumed to exclude those who do not identify with a religious tradition, or who actively identify as humanist or atheist. Yet modern chaplaincy understands that the human spirit is common to everyone, regardless of their self-identification within, without, or beyond traditions. This course will explore how well-trained chaplains can and should serve those who are non-religious, as well as how non-religious individuals can pursue careers in spiritual care toward the goal of serving those of any or no religious identification.

Mary Martha Thiel

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Reverend Mary Martha Thiel is the Director of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE*) at Hebrew SeniorLife (HSL). Drawing on the energy and nimbleness of its CPE program, the Religious and Spiritual Care Department spearheads the LGBTQ+ initiatives on HSL’s six campuses.

Mary Martha has been a national leader in teaching spiritual care of the non-religious. Building on this foundation, and with grant funding from the Carpenter Foundation, she then developed a specialized CPE training unit focusing on the spiritual needs of LGBTQ+ elders. LGBTQ+ elders have often experienced religious trauma earlier in their lives, leading to religious disaffiliation and spiritual isolation. Even those who were “out” in their independent lives frequently choose to be closeted when they enter long term care or senior living communities. Nevertheless, their spiritual needs — for love/belonging, forgiveness, hope, trust, meaning/legacy, gratitude, and identity – remain alive.

Students have flocked to these courses. The CPE program, together with staff training in how to make HSL communities more welcoming of LGBTQ+ individuals, has contributed to real culture change at HSL. Patients who had never dreamed it possible have felt safe to come out and have experienced sensitivity from staff. Residents have begun to share more freely about LGBTQ+ members of their families. LGBTQ+ family members are more comfortable on HSL campuses and visit their loved ones more frequently. LGBTQ+ staff feel supported by the organization. It’s been a win all the way around.

Rev. Mary Martha Thiel states: “I love that HSL’s mission and Jewish values help drive LGBTQ+ hospitality in our communities. Instead of hurting LGBTQ+ elders, religion now rightfully supports and celebrates their presence.”

Mary Martha lives in Brookline with her spouse, and has two daughters. She is active at First Church Cambridge, UCC. She is an avid reader, traveler, and lifelong learner.

Ylisse Bess

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Chaplain Ylisse C. Bess (she/they) serves as College Chaplain and Christian Life Coordinator at Wellesley College. Ylisse’s ecumenical background includes roots in the Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and American Baptist Churches. They continued their spiritual growth through their Methodist seminary education and have served as an Associate Minister in a UCC congregation. They earned their bachelor’s degree in sociology and religious studies from Gonzaga University, their M.Div. from Boston University School of Theology, and became a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains.

Ylisse joins the ORSL staff after serving as Program Director for the Trauma Responsive Congregations Grant at Boston University School of Theology. As adjunct faculty at BU School of Theology, Ylisse takes a trauma-responsive approach to team teaching current seminary students, and continuing education for clergy through courses such as “Sustaining Spirits While Empires Crumble,” and “Spiritual Care for the Nonreligious.”

Ylisse comes to Wellesley with 5 five years of experience as an Intensive Care Unit chaplain at level 1 trauma centers in Boston, including multifaith pastoral care and counseling, as well as crisis response.

Ylisse draws on years of experience leading multifaith religious/spiritual services, providing opportunities for reflection, contemplative practice, education, and leading retreats. She has a passion for developing creative programming for spiritual nourishment and growth, advocating for reproductive justice, and freeing our community members from immigration jail through local community organizing.

College is an opportunity to explore, detangle, and rebuild a world for one’s self and community – Ylisse is excited to be part of that journey with Wellesley students. Ylisse hopes to support Wellesley students as they make meaning of the shifts in their lives – from their joy, grief, faith, activism, extracurricular activities, and everything in between.

In her free time, Ylisse enjoys roller skating and adventures with her dog Paprika-Ylisse!