A UCLA Health chaplain aims to leave an imprint on her community

Creating 'a sustainable space for you to tap into' is the Rev. Whittney Ijanaten’s goal

Photo: Rev. Whittney Ijanaten at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center's interfaith meditation center/chapel on Friday, June 17, 2022 (Photo by Joshua Sudock | UCLA Health)

The Rev. Whittney Ijanaten knows how to read a room.

From clasping hands and holding prayer for families who just lost a loved one, to laughing with patients so loudly, a nurse gently asks to close the door – Ijanaten says providing space for people to be human is core to her work.

Ijanaten, a resident chaplain in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program (CPE) at UCLA Health, has made her mark on patients and colleagues during the one-year program. She’s joined the PRIDE Network, an affinity group at UCLA Health, started an LGBTQ++ book club, and has worked to dispel myths around spirituality and sexuality.

“One moment I’m mourning and crying with patients and the next I’m celebrating the birth and life of another. It’s a beautiful journey,” she says.

Originally from Cleveland, Ijanaten grew up in the church. Before pursuing a Master’s of Theology from the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, she dabbled in a few other careers, including marriage and family therapy and organizing political campaigns with religious figures to champion same-sex marriage policies.

In 2017, she became an ordained minister and in 2018 moved to Los Angeles with her family. Seeking to expand her skillset, she applied to the CPE program at UCLA Health in 2021.

The CPE Program is housed by the Spiritual Care Department at UCLA Health. Beginning in August, the program is a full-time commitment concluding at the end of a year. Ijanaten will complete the program this upcoming August.

“I don’t necessarily feel like I’m called to chaplaincy, but I do feel like I'm called to minister,” she says.

Ministry has many forms and chaplaincy is one of them, she says.

“It's been something I've been able to glean a lot from and then I’ve also been able to give input,” she says.

Ijanatan says much of her work is related to diversity, equity and inclusion, which is integral in how the spiritual care team operates.

“We come into contact with so many people, so many different faith traditions, spiritualities, religion systems, it's been rewarding,” she says. “I love the interfaith aspect of the UCLA chaplaincy program.”

Ijanaten recalls a specific encounter with a patient that requested to see her, which she’ll never forget. “Before I can even introduce myself the patient goes, ‘Hi, I’m such and such and this is my partner.’ I introduce myself and I’m like, 'What can I do, how can I support?'”

The patient said to her, “You didn’t even bat an eye.” Confused, Ijanaten asked if she was missing something.

“The fact that I could share with you that this is my same-sex partner and you being a person of the cloth and not even batting an eye – that was what we needed,” the patient told her.

All the patient wanted was validation and support, Ijanaten says.

She says this is one example of the numerous interactions she has had with patients, staff, trainees and even volunteers.

Though this work is rewarding, it can be challenging to rebound from the highs and lows of emotional experiences, Ijanaten says.

“To be effective at my job, I have to honor my capacity,” she says. “I am very intentional about going to the gardens and eating my lunch or getting outside and taking a walk.”

Ijanaten feels supported by her fellow chaplains and can voice to them when she isn’t feeling emotionally, mentally or spiritually ready for the next patient.

“I can come to them and say, ‘I just don't have it in me, I need to go and recharge,’ and I don’t need to explain why,” she says.

In addition to seeking comradery within her department, Ijanaten searched for additional ways to build community with her colleagues across the health system.

She was referred to the "Wellness Wednesdays" emails, which is where she found the PRIDE Network, an affinity group at UCLA Health.

Curious about the group, she joined a meeting meant for the “core” members contributing to Pride planning and was welcomed with open arms.

During the meeting, Ijanaten suggested a book club, both something she enjoys and that would extend beyond the month of June.

She was asked if she wanted to lead it – yes, she said, and she jumped right in.

The first book, We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib, arrived in early April. In May, the author joined for the final meeting.

Ijanaten says the book club was a great opportunity for people to peel back their layers.

“Particularly as we're in the midst of social distancing – literally wearing masks – I asked myself, how do I unmask myself while wearing a mask? How do I show my truth while being socially distant? How do I be present while being via zoom? And how do I socially navigate this new normal, with the same needs?”

The intimacy of the small group and opportunity to share stories are what made the book club meetings so special to her.

“It was a beautiful coming-together and just a really great way to connect, share our stories, and then also share our perceptions and our responses from this queer memoir of a story that doesn't normally get told.”

As she prepares for the final months of her residency, she is co-hosting the next book club meeting, a metaphorical passing of the torch.

She says it feels good to see something start and have the momentum to continue.

“It's nice for something to not just solely be started and worked on by me, or end once I leave. This is something where everyone's looking forward to the next book,” she says.

Once graduated from the program, Ijanaten will focus her attention on entrepreneurship. In 2020, she began an officiating business that represents her “personality, education and love and adoration for people,” she says.

Reflecting on the mark she’s made in her short time at UCLA Health, she says she wants the community to know that chaplains are there for each and every person who needs support.

“Know that we are here and human with you. I want you to know that you can call (Spiritual Services) for yourself, too. So often as caretakers we make that external ask to others, and rarely do we take those same caregiving acts for ourselves,” she says.

“Our team has you. This is a sustainable space for you to tap into and utilize.”

Learn more about the UCLA Health Spiritual Care Department.