Bees and improving the world of technology: Stanford Chaplain Fellow

I meet Anannda at an intentional living community in Oakland, where she hands me an all-white beekeeper suit—a color that puts bees at ease. We go out into the big yard: a garden of flowers, herbs, fruits and crops, chickens in the coop and several dogs chasing.

“Okay, game plan: when I go in there, I don’t have smoke, I just have almond oil, which will make us smell nice, but the bees will be like, ‘aaahh what are you doing?’ . ..'”

My nerves are shaking as we approach the noisy hive. Normal people freak out when a bee lands on their sandwich, but Anannda walks confidently through hundreds of people. In fact, he has about fifty living between his two hives min bees.

Anannda tells me that if you’ve ever seen a honey bee collecting nectar or pollen, that bee has been an elder. Bees age with different roles in the hiveand before they die, their last task is to leave home to forage and ensure the health of their colony.

“What does it mean to like to go out and provide something bigger than yourself? And I hope that what I’m doing as a chaplain is how do we help solidify after seven generations?”

So what does Ananda do as a cleric?

“I literally sit with people and accompany them on their emotional and spiritual journey…”

It is so it’s different than seeing a therapist or psychologist – is professional, compassionate listening in a hospital, military, prison or schools. And Anannda is open to everyone, regardless of their spiritual, religious beliefs or lack thereof.

“…and contrary to popular belief, although I profess to be a Christian and a Presbyterian minister of the word in the sacrament, I do not proselytize.”

In Anann, a departure from the norm for clergy and Presbyterian clergy until recent history no straight white man.

“I was ordained at a church in Silicon Valley, uh, First Pres Palo Alto, scream, um, they set this weird black woman. I am grateful for that.”

Anannda didn’t know that she always wanted to enter the priesthood and later become a priest. At the turn of the two millennia, he was studying for the LSAT at Illinois College with the goal of becoming a lawyer:

“I thought I heard the spirit of God say, ‘You’re going to seminary,’ and I was like, haha, you’re kidding.”

So he reluctantly made a deal with God: he didn’t stop enjoying fun and college. But if he had been accepted to every theological school he applied to, he would have gone with it.

“And I got into every seminary I applied to. So, I was good, bad. Well, I’ll hold up my end of the bargain. And I come from a long line in my family of preachers and teachers. My God, I’m in the family business.”

So, after graduating from Illinois College in 2011 with a degree in International Studies and Spanish, Anannda embarked on the next chapter of her life. As of 2014, he has a Master of Divinity. He considered becoming a missionary, but did not want to proselytize. After being assigned to a church in Palo Alto, he realized that the priesthood was his calling.

“I remember having a patient and the patient’s daughter was very upset with the staff. Um, so they called me as the chaplain of that unit and said, ‘hey, can you sit with the patient’s daughter?’

Anannda says that the primary role of spirituality is to look beyond one’s behavior—to find the deeper root causes—often: fear.

In this case, the daughter was afraid of her mother’s prognosis and lack of control. Finally, Anannda was able to calm her down, so she could communicate peacefully with the staff and support her mother.

“But it takes time to do that. Sitting – nurses don’t have time for that, nor is it their job. Doctors don’t have that kind of time, and it’s not their job.”

Stress in a crisis setting like a hospital can debilitate all parties. Therefore, the role of a chaplain is very important.

“Do you have any stories about your toughest days as a chaplain?”

“Yes, one of my hardest days as a priest was when I was on call, and on call is a 12-hour shift. I got the day shifts because Lord knows I’m better during the day than at night. And now it was maybe the fifth week in a row that it was just constant death.”

This was at the height of the Covid pandemic, so there was a vaccine before. Anannda was a chaplain in four different departments at Stanford Hospital, including the oncology intensive care unit and the bone marrow and transplant unit.

“And it’s just this repetition of families who believe in miracles, ‘because they went to the hospital with their loved one,’ and now comes a time when the patient is in an active dying process and there’s a shock that happens.

Ananna sat with dying patients and their grieving families. He saw hard-working hospital staff being treated with anger and denial. Not to mention the custodians who are called the silent heroes of the pandemic, cleaning every room.

“So it was the hardest time, juggling five, six deaths a day. Because all I did that day was death.”

“Okay, my dears. I’ve been known to give myself a tiresome sermon, going deep into everything that’s wrong with the world, but this sermon touches on that, but it’s a little light, okay?…”

As a child, Anannda and her family were constantly moving between Illinois and Georgia. It was difficult for him, because relationships were constantly being cut off.

“So the church was one of the most consistent things in my life. No matter where I go, God is always with me. As a prayer life and really developed, I think out of necessity.

His mother worked in technology for the first half of Ananda’s life and did so for a total of 19 years.

“Now he is no longer involved in technology. So I saw some of the ways that technology was affecting black women in particular. How do I, as a pastor, understand this culture that is Silicon Valley?”

Anannda is passionate about this being the greatest era of innovation in human history.

“If we’re still early enough in the construction phase, that means we can do really amazing things as colleagues and conspirators in our various professions to make it the best it can be.”

He says this high rates of depression and anxiety very common in the workplace and normal in the industry. His role is to help people working to improve technology that can cause mental health dilemmas.

“To help them recognize who they are, to recognize their value, their integrity, so that because they’re not, you know, they’re living lives that rob them of their souls.”

That’s why it works now at Stanford, as a chaplain, serving students in STEM while conducting research.

“I think it’s a great service to humanity, frankly, to the industry, and I think it’s going to free them up and make better products for the world to make.”

Specifically, Ananna is working to set a precedent for the use of evidence-based chaplaincy. He says it’s important not only to learn what care is missing in the tech field to show that is missing.

“So a healthier society has healthier people, you know? I don’t think it’s utopian, I actually think it’s practical, and I think it’s actually a more sustainable business model and a more sustainable model for academia.”

Evidence-based chaplaincy already exists in clinical settings. Thus, Ananna is a pioneer in the path to higher education. Already, in her year at Stanford, she’s found that sitting with students through existential crises can help them discover themselves.

“And so what I often see with students is their worth, their sense of self is tied to their accomplishments.”

Relying on achievement for joy and self-worth is worrisome, says Anannda, because what happens if it disappears or becomes disillusioned? And as it turns out, this isn’t just a topic found in higher education. Those on sick or dying beds have similar epiphanies.

“I think the similarities stem from the crisis. Rarely do I meet a student or a patient where the crisis doesn’t bring up these deeper questions. So they literally explore joy on a very simple level, which is beautiful.”

Until now, most people seemed open to the ideas of an evidence-based chaplain and caregiver.

“Everybody I’ve talked to about it, yeah, it makes sense. Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, don’t listen to me!’ You know, ‘I don’t want to share my problems. I don’t want to be a complete person.” I have no such reaction.”

How can we separate our self-worth from our accomplishments and instead gather meaning from community, from giving back? Like bees!

“I think that’s kind of a lesson for us, what does that look like? And this should not be the last stages of our life. Right. Because we are not bees, and this job is good enough. It should be, but to ensure life.”

“Amazing! Wow. These bees really got deep.”

Talking with Anannda makes me wonder: do people like her help students uncover and resolve the same existential crises that others may not face until near death?

It looks like what he’s doing here is allowing others to explore their calling before it’s too late.

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