When Dr. Bonita Adlestein Kozemchak started a virtual group this spring for folks seeking support in the midst of isolation and uncertainty, her reasoning was simple: we are meant to be in community. We are not meant to be isolated.
Dr. Kozemchak, known as “Dr. Bonnie” to participants, is a former pediatric neuropsychologist and a certified spiritual director. She named the group “Sanctuary in Place.” The name offers a spiritual and familial undertone to the “Shelter in place” recommendations so prevalent since mid-March.
The crux of the weekly gatherings, conducted via Zoom, is compassionate listening, nonjudgmental support, and a place to lay bare anxieties, fears and concerns. From trepidation over a loved one’s illness and anxiety about job loss, to concerns about the availability of cleaning supplies, every feeling is validated.
“We need to acknowledge those feelings, whatever they are,” said Dr. Kozemchak, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle. “Just allowing someone to bring what they’re feeling and have everyone else in the group hold it in sacred space can be relieving. It’s allowing someone to say, ‘This is where I’m at right now.’”
“We’ve had participants whose family members were dying. They had loved ones in nursing homes. We had families affected from the degrees of separation. We talk about how to hand that over to God,” Dr. Kozemchak said.
“We talk about allowing Jesus to sit and cry with you. Jesus was with every person who has died, with everyone who is anxious, with everyone who is sick. There is no place Jesus won’t sit and cry with you. You are never alone,” she said.
Sanctuary in Place isn’t therapy, and Dr. Kozemchak doesn’t tell participants what they should or shouldn’t do. Neither do fellow group members. “I see my role as listening to people as they enter self-discovery of who God wants them to be, and how they can live that,” she said.
“We don’t tell people what to do. There’s never any comment about what somebody says. We hold a very contemplative dialogue. No one is going to say a critical word. That’s just not our culture, and people immediately feel that when they come into the group. Every person is so welcome, and so supported. People want to be in that space of comfort and validity,” Dr. Kozemchak said.
Seated at her computer and back-dropped by a picturesque view of pastoral land from her home in rural Cumberland County, Dr. Kozemchak starts the sessions with a question, or by inviting participants to contemplate an image.
For example, she’ll ask them how their prayer life is going, how they’ve participated in Sunday Mass, or what they’ve talking to God about.
“The point of Sanctuary in Place is to ask: ‘Who do I want to be through this? What is God asking me to do? When I’m just being, what does God see? How do I intend to be what God wants me to be, even if it’s just walking the dog?’ Knowing that there is a group supporting you in those questions is very important,” she remarked.
Participant Kathleen Giambanco joined Sanctuary in Place “because I needed a place to connect with others who were feeling a sense of anxiety, frustration and – yes – fear of this new way of life that we were experiencing.”
“Bonnie is a wonderful facilitator. Her reflections are so moving,” she said.
Giambanco called to mind one reflection in which Dr. Kozemchak asked the participants to imagine themselves with Jesus. She told them to picture themselves putting their head on his shoulder as he whispered, “Be not afraid. I am with you.”
“Sanctuary in Place gives us a place to find a light in the darkness of today’s pandemic,” Giambanco said. “The group is so encouraging to each other. We share our faith and our hopes for what God has in store for us. Bonnie has brought out a strength and given us some serenity in these uncertain times. We know it is OK to be impatient sometimes. Through our sharing, we all have a sense of gratitude and hope for God’s plan for the future.”
In the midst of talking about isolation, loss, anxiety and uncertainty, Dr. Kozemchack imparts the group with hope.
“If you have a negative feeling when you get up in the morning, but then you take a shower, you have a cup of coffee and you go to work, the feeling starts to dissipate because you’re busy and you’re involved with other people. But if you’re home or you’re alone and all you’re thinking is ‘This is really bad,’ it becomes all you think about. That thought gets bigger, it gets heavier, it gets uglier, and it starts to take on a life of its own. When you’re alone, the gremlins in your head take over,” she said.
She tells participants to let go of thoughts of “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
“When we’re in a situation where we’re isolated or anxious, and we’re thinking, ‘I should be strong, I shouldn’t let this bother me,’ I tell people in our group, ‘There’s no ‘should.’ You can’t live up to all expectations. Instead, we need to sit in the graces we’re given, and look at what we can do.”
“We offer hope. Hope isn’t a word we say out loud a lot, but it is certainly transmitted through every person, and it’s what people can find in this group, and what God offers,” Dr. Kozemchak remarked.
She anticipates that the weekly virtual sessions will dissipate after the pandemic passes and people are able to fully return to work, family visits and normal routines, but she said she’ll keep it going as long as participants want it.
“We hold each other up in prayer. That’s impressive when you have 20 people on a Zoom call praying for you at the same time,” Dr. Kozemchak said.
“At the end of the day, they walk away with something that is inviting and positive. God is gentle with us; the world is harsh. We need to allow that gentleness in.”
(For information on participating in Sanctuary in Place, contact Dr. Kozemchak via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Photo by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness