Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chaplains for the world

It’s been hard to know how to share with you all the wonderful, awful, exhausting, inspiring work that is chaplaincy—partly because it is a fearsome and impossible thing to express, partly out of concerns about privacy. This summer I served as a hospital chaplain and am still wrapping my mind and heart around how it changed me, and what it means to listen, love, and care for strangers.

Photo by Andrew Parnell

After my first overnight shift at the hospital this summer—after twenty-four hours, seventeen calls, eight deaths, $21.50 worth of cafeteria food, and four hours of sleep—I handed the clipboard to the Sunday chaplain, exhaled heavily, and hopped on my bike, speeding hastily away from the clinical halls and towards my church. I knew I needed hymns, prayer and the Communion meal. And then, most definitely, a long nap.

What I did not expect was that they were coming with me, as I pedaled up and down the hills. The one who lost her husband, and the one who’d lost her fiance before the marriage license came in. The one who wanted to tearfully tell her sister’s story, and one who just wanted to know the best donut place in town because it was one am and tomorrow would be even more exhausting than today. Young and old, religious and nonreligious, emotional and stoic, prepared and unprepared, planning to cremate and planning to bury.

They were coming with me. I imagined them now, waking up alone with dogs in an empty house, or spending an anniversary making funeral arrangements, or stopping at Monuts before making the long drive home. I prayed for them, hurt for them, longed to be with them. In moments, they are with me still.


The job of a chaplain is rather amorphous and vague. “Spiritual care” can mean a lot of things: compassionate listening, empathy, talking through tough decisions, validation of feelings, prayer or Scripture or rituals, a non-medical advocate, a hand to hold at end of life. When we introduced ourselves as chaplains, some people immediately asked for prayer. Some people cleaned up their language; others told us all their quibbles with God. Some clammed up completely and asked us to leave; others asked us to pull up a chair so they could start at the beginning.

It turned out that first overnight shift was one of my most intense days of the summer. After that, there were a lot fewer deaths. More often, at least on the cardiology floor, there were prayers with old ladies and smiles with old men. There were conversations about new treatment regimens. There were teary confessions of loneliness. There were cheery follow-ups after surgery.

And there was lots that was surprising. That people allowed a stranger into their rooms to listen to their life stories. That people wanted to talk twice as much about their gratitude as about their worries. That today I could feel I was becoming such a great chaplain, just in time to be completely stumped by a situation tomorrow. That the ducks in Duke gardens could bring me such comfort on the days when I needed a lunchtime walk to help me breathe again.

But most of all what surprised me was how many people’s concerns were completely unrelated to their hospital stay. A sick dog. A loss from ten years ago that still stings. A separation. A history of abuse. A distant child. A regret. A complicated and unresolved religious journey.

These people were carrying with them the burdens and bruises that come from living in the world, the kind of burdens and bruises we all carry, the kind that make us human, and make us need each other. And from some I got the sense that this surprise visit from the chaplain was one of the rarer moments in their lives, one of the moments they felt cared about, able to talk about all that was weighing them down.

And maybe it was just the vulnerability of being in the hospital that got them to the place of sharing, and maybe most of the time the tears are forced back down. But they have been carrying these burdens through all their house renovations and business deals, their lonely or sleepless nights at home and their Western movie marathons.


The morning after that first overnight shift, as I tried to bike away from it all, I needed a chaplain. Though I was not a hospital patient, though I was not sick, I needed someone to care for my spirit, to listen, to affirm, to care. I’m lucky that I had nine other chaplains as colleagues to care for me over the summer, to care for me still when I pass them in the hallways between classes. I have been carrying the pain of so many beautiful people, and carrying so much hope for them and for me.

But then, aren’t we all? In the grocery stores and on the highways and in class or precept or at work. And though it’s easier for all of us to pretend we have it all together when we’re not lying vulnerable and stripped of agency in a hospital bed, we never really do.

I’m intrigued by this idea that has been with me since the end of my time as a chaplain--the idea that there is a deep need for chaplains in the world, chaplains on every street and in every building. I don’t know what that means. I’m not generally in the practice of putting a hand on the shoulder of the person at the next table in the coffee shop and saying, “Hey, I noticed you’re staring into space, is everything okay?” Some people can do that; I don’t think I can. But I do think I, and all of us, can pay a little more attention, speak a little more gently, and maybe even, when the spirit prods, offer a kind hello. I do think we can imagine that the grocery clerk who’s bagging slowly might have something on her mind, and give her a smile. I do think we can invite the classmate who keeps to himself to sit at our table.

Several years back, stressed and overworked, I had a co-worker whom I saw primarily as a means to sharing my workload, as a means to accomplishing the task at hand. I would become frustrated with him when the task was not accomplished, or when I felt overwhelmed. One night, I had a melodramatic and wildly untrue dream--that he had experienced the tragic death of his soul mate and true love. From that day on I never saw him the same way again. From that day on, I felt the same aching empathy for him that characterized the mood of the dream. In a strange way I suddenly learned to love him.

I am sitting in the library now, rolling my eyes at the always-exasperated woman who seems to have such a sense of entitlement about using the computers here, even though she is a guest of the university, and I am the one paying for these services with my tuition dollars. But who is she, and why does she come here so often, and what is she carrying that makes her so easily frustrated? Could you or I offer her some kindness and compassion? There is always so much more to each of us, beneath the surface.

On our first day as chaplains, we were shown this lovely video. Watch it, and then imagine the stories of all the people around you, and then be kind. You may be needed to be a chaplain in the world.

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