Levine Children's Hospital Chapel: A Place of Hope
Inside Levine Children’s Hospital is a small room with a tear-stained floor, an altar, and a bowl of smooth stones. The interfaith chapel is a respite amid the sickness, a side of the hospital that few people know
William Cates, left, spent two months at Levine in 2009 battling bacterial meningitis. His parents Kim (in photo) and Jesse Cates would visit the chapel to escape the noise of the hospital. William recovered and is studying culinary arts at CPCC. Opposite: Someone once ripped out the Twenty-third Psalm. It returned months later, creased and worn.
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The most depressing place in Charlotte?
Jim Sonda winces at the thought.
As chaplain at the Levine Children’s Hospital, he’s witnessed enough suffering to know that all the bells and whistles at the state-of-the-art hospital cannot soften the reality. Kids come here sick. Not all of them go home. As their loved ones wait for this journey to end one way or another, many make their way to the chapel on the second floor to pray, think, rest—to try to let out what has been building inside them since the doctors first shared the news. Sonda remembers looking down at the wooden floor of the chapel one day and noticing a mark left by water, too indelible to be erased by a mop, or time.
“Teardrops,” he says.
But Sonda and the loved ones who come to the chapel will not allow it to be thought of simply as depressing. Faith, doubt, and having a twelve-year-old with cancer—when it all converges, life is far too complicated to capture in one word. So while a tear-stained floor speaks to the sadness of the chapel, especially this time of year, the voices of those who go to the chapel speak to the comfort and hope they find there. A place they can go to wrestle with life’s hardest issues, they say. A refuge.
Levine Children’s Hospital has commanded the city’s attention since it opened in December 2007, in part because of the support of two of Charlotte’s most prominent families. A $10 million gift from Leon and Sandra Levine helped bring to life the $85 million complex, off South Kings Drive with the exterior panels that change color depending on the time of day. NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick and his wife, Linda, gave $3 million. The pediatric and cardiovascular intensive care unit is named for their son, Ricky, who died with nine others in a plane crash on the way to a race in Martinsville, Virginia, in 2004. He was twenty-four, older than most of the children who are rushed to the ICU that is named in his memory.
Kimberly Hicks’s son Corson, fourteen, was diagnosed with bone cancer one day after he started high school. She visits the chapel at night to catch her breath.
The 234-bed, twelve-story hospital was built, of course, to care for the Carolinas’ sickest children—more than 28,000 inpatients in its first five years. But it was also built to stand out, from the changing colors of the façade visible to thousands of passersby each day to a rooftop garden offering families a dazzling view. Not exactly soaring rhetoric, but Levine President Martha Whitecotton shared the deeper meaning of the amenities when the hospital opened: “We believe the very ambience of the building promotes a healing environment that supplements the impact of cutting-edge technology and experienced medical staff.”
Then there’s the chapel.
Located a few yards from the second-floor elevator, it’s easy to miss if you’re looking for the larger family resource center, where loved ones can research the illness that brought them here. Inside the chapel there is little to distinguish it. That bare wooden floor, with a tearstain or two. Soft lighting. Chairs rather than pews, the kind you’d find in any nice waiting room. There’s a Bible on an altar up front, a concession to the Judeo-Christian demographic of the Carolinas, though the chapel is meant for people of all faiths. Someone once ripped out the page with the
Twenty-third Psalm. It came back months later, bent and creased from use. There are a couple of special touches in the chapel, but you have to look carefully to notice them in the soft light. There’s a glass bowl, for example, filled with heart-shaped ceramic stones, smooth to the touch. The idea, Sonda says, is for people to pick up a stone, roll it around in their hands and release to it the feelings they are ready to let go of—anger, fear, emptiness. The hope? Unburdened, at least for the moment, they can go back upstairs to be there for their children.
There’s also a notebook in which people can put their prayers in writing. Some ask for God to touch a failing lung. One writer notes that it has been ten months since arriving at Levine. A few write in Spanish, though the expressions are often universal. “Gracias, Padre,” one person writes.