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The Sacredness of Conversation: My Year As A Hospital Chaplain

This week is my last week working as a resident hospital chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, VA. Since August of last year, I have been working at Maryview and for the Bon Secours Health System as a resident chaplain as part of a Clinical Pastoral Education program which is a requirement for most individuals seeking to become ordained ministers. While my denomination only requires one to serve 10 weeks in a CPE program, I decided to do an entire year for the full experience of what it would be like to work in a hospital providing spiritual care to patients and families.

When I began to discern doing a CPE residency, I was in my final year of graduate school at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While in seminary I spent a year as an intern at First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo and enjoyed learning in a parish setting, I also wanted to gain a year working in the hospital environment to learn about hospital chaplaincy.

The problem was that as someone who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to Northern California, (where my seminary was located) and saw California as my new home, I felt it would be a struggle for me to leave the area. However, after I found a chaplain residency program in Hampton Roads, Virginia at a hospital which I felt called to serve, I knew I had to say goodbye to the West Coast (at least for a year) for this new opportunity. And to be honest, this was one of the hardest things I had ever decided to do. Especially since I had to say goodbye to my friends who had become my family.

What also was difficult was that the first few weeks of living in Hampton Roads,
Virginia (which encompasses the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and four more cities) were really tough. For weeks I stayed in cheap motel rooms and stayed in church people’s homes feeling as if I was a traveler with no real home. But through God’s grace, I later found a room to rent in Norfolk, made a friendship with my new housemate, and began to adjust to my new surroundings.

One of the first things which come to people’s minds when I tell them I am a resident hospital chaplain is they think it’s my job to go into hospital rooms and evangelize to people. This is far from the truth. And if it was my job—I wouldn’t want any part of it because I don’t believe God’s love should be shared through words—but rather through actions of love. As a hospital chaplain, it’s not my job to push my faith beliefs or theologies onto others. Rather, it’s my job to meet people where they are at, respect their spiritual or non-spiritual beliefs, and through my presence being in their hospital room and listening to them, be with them where ever they may be emotional, physical, or spiritually.

One of the greatest opportunities I’ve had in my program was to work with not only patients from various backgrounds, but to work alongside various chaplains and chaplain residents from various faith backgrounds. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational—just to name a few. Despite our differences in how we pray to God, all of us provided the same level of not just pastoral care, but emotional care to patients in their time of need.

But while many people may think chaplaincy is a laid back ministry, the truth is that it can be really difficult. Because while people are in the hospital for health issues, like all of us, they are dealing so many personal issues and have so many struggles. Especially for many in the Hampton Roads—an area where people deal with so many injustices every day ranging from poverty, racism, crime, drugs, and lack of opportunities.

“When you enter a room you are not having a light conversation with a patient over a cup of tea,” one of my chaplain mentors told me on my first day. “You are on the front lines: hearing about personal pains about addictions, family issues, depression, loneliness, alienation, and loss of hope.”

Even though the majority of the patients I would visit came through initial walk-in visits into their hospital rooms, some of the patients I would visit would come through moments of crisis. From hospital codes where a patient would be brought in and unresponsive and family members would be in shock. To have to do crisis care with young mothers who lost their newborn babies to fetal demises or due to child protective services taking their baby away. To sometimes being called in to help with family interventions—a chaplain always has a pager going off with a patient or family member in need of help.

For me, the emotional intensity of having attended 43 deaths in this past year, spending six months doing pastoral care in the psychiatric unit with patients who are often ignored and neglected by society, and working in a hospital environment all took a great toll on me psychically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting lack of sleep, not eating right, skipping times to exercise, all wore me down very quickly to where I felt disconnected from myself and disconnected from God.

What added to the difficulty I had this past year was not having my friends and family nearby to spend time with when I wasn’t at work. With my family in Pittsburgh and my seminary community and friends back in Northern California, I felt a sense of isolation, depression, and at times, struggled with loneliness.

However, what was a saving grace for me was having a few special friends who took my phone calls and text messages when I needed it the most. And along with the help of my committee for preparation of ministry in California, I was able to recognize the need to take care of myself before I could be a presence to others.

What also was a blessing was the arrival of four chaplain students who came to our hospital from various parts of the country this June for our summer program. Their excitement to create a social circle with all of us who worked in spiritual care through Bon Secours allowed me to engage in a social life I hadn’t experienced since leaving seminary through beach trips, happy-hour specials, and many trips to the movie theater.

Most of all, what helped the most was being able to reconnect with God. While seeing so many suffering people caused me to question God (and still question God every day), a colleague friend of mine told me to find ways to look for God when I was trying to be a spiritual presence during someone’s difficult moment.

“It will come through things we may not notice at first, but look for it in the prayers we lead, the hugs we share, and the care and compassion you see the nurses and the doctors have for their patients,” she said. “When one person suffers, others in the hospital help by sharing in that suffering. And that is a glimpse of God’s presence.”
“A God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers,” theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, writes in his book “Lament for a Son”.

As I find myself preparing to begin the final week of my residency and my final Sunday at Park View Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Chesapeake, VA where I have been working as a temporary pastor this summer, I will struggle to say goodbye to a lot of meaningful relationships I have made this past year in the hospital, in the church, and in the community. And while this past year has been one of the most challenging years in my life, it also the most trans-formative and affirming years of my life as well.

The first thing I will take away is how much I have changed, matured, and been transformed by the entire experience of hospital chaplaincy. Despite the struggles of getting used to living in an area which is drastically different than that of Northern California and even that of my home state of Pennsylvania, I have been able to stretch myself by not only being able to find confidence in places I didn’t have before, but also see my weaknesses in my life in places I couldn’t recognize it before. Just as it as my job as a resident chaplain to hold up a mirror and let others see things about themselves they could not see about their own lives, this program has done that for me too.
This program has also allowed me to challenge myself to step out of my introverted shell and engage people. While I am perhaps known for my sense of humor, I am indeed terribly shy and it takes me a lot of energy to share myself with others even if it is through this blog. This program has been able to teach me how to step out and how to connect with others.

This program has also taught me a lot about culture and diversity too. My hospital, where the majority of our patients are African-American and belong to Baptist and Pentecostal faith traditions, has allowed me for the first time experience what it’s like being in the minority and the unfair privilege I, as a white, straight, protestant male, had (and have) in ministry and in life.

My residency also taught me a lot about the health issues which are facing our communities and our country–particularly the struggle surrounding affordable healthcare. From patients in our psychiatric unit who are forced back on the streets and cannot afford their medications to seeing people die of manageable health issues such as diabetes and obesity, I have seen the crisis many Americans are facing when it comes to their health and the crisis we as a country are facing in our health system today.

And while I enjoy working with people of different faith traditions, I learned the need to work with those whose beliefs are different than mine—particularly those in my same religion. As a progressive mainline Christian, I had the opportunity to work with many Christians who considered themselves fundamental and conservative when it came to their religious ideologies. While we may have our differences, I am blessed to have learned and be mentored by many who have different Christian theologies than mine and have great discussions–and sometimes disagreements too.
But the most important aspect which I have taken away from this past year is the sacred moments I had with others. The sacred moments not just coming from many conversations and prayers, but also sacred moments of being with family members after they lost loved ones. Because despite the anxieties and insecurities I have about myself and the ministry I tried to provide to patients this year, I have blessed in the ability of the Holy Spirit to show up and minister to my patients (and myself) through deep confessions, heartache stories, and often tears coming not just from patients, but between myself and my other chaplains during the time we took to minister to each other.

Adding my parting words on the markerboard of parting words from other students in my program before they left.
While often it can be a perception that ministers—or those of us going into ministry, always have confidence in the existence of the divine and are confident in what God’s purpose for us may be, I like to echo Anne Lamott by saying “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” In fact, as Paul Tillich writes, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And to be honest, even after this residency, I still not only have doubt but now have more doubts about God than when I started!

One of the things people have been asking me is what I am going to do next. For me, while I would like to have an answer to that question, the truth is, I don’t have one…..right now. One thing which I am certain about is on Sunday after my last service, I will be going home back to Pittsburgh. For me, not only have I been away from Pennsylvania this past year, but I have been gone from home since I left for seminary five years ago. It’s my hope to someday (in the near future) return to the West Coast. And someday when I get ordained, find opportunities not only in hospital chaplaincy but also in church ministry–no matter where in the world those opportunities may be. But first, I want to take the time to myself while also work on a few remaining requirements for me to be eligible to be ordained. And more importantly, I want to catch up with some friends from high school and family members whom I haven’t been good at keeping in touch with these past five years. This is something which I want to change.
If there is one thing I do know beyond my own doubts about God and the insecurities and anxieties that I had I still have about myself even after this residency, it is that despite the differences all of us have when it comes to our ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or life stories, all of us share one thing in common; we seek to be respected, accepted, and loved.

And if all of us are able to recognize the delicacies of life that we share together and are able to take a moment and be a spiritual presence with others through compassionate listening, then I think we can discover not just the own commonality we all share as individuals. But together, we can discover what it truly means to be human.

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