I am currently into my second week of my chaplaincy internship at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire. Today, for about the millionth time since I began I found myself asking, why am I here?
Practically, I know why I’m here. All ELCA candidates for ordination (that is a person training to be a pastor) must complete something called a clinical pastoral education unit (CPE). Chaplaincy internships at a hospital are the most traditional avenues of completing a CPE requirement. I am here because I have to be.
I am also here because I want to be. I chose this site for a variety of reasons – I had never lived in New England, I really connected with the supervisor when I interviewed, it is the only neonatal clinic in this region of the country, it is a Trauma 1 center (which means a lot of complicated cases) and this site uniquely offers a stipend.
But today, as I was completing my rounds, I was overwhelmed with a frustrating sense that what I am doing is very foreign to the makeup of the culture here, and a type of ministry very much foreign to me.
New England is one of the most secular areas of the United States. Organized religion is not only hard to find here, but often frowned upon. Just this weekend, as I was shopping for my dad’s Father’s Day present, a sales rep heard my Midwestern accent and asked me what brought me to the upper valley. I explained that I was a chaplain intern at the hospital, and very quickly she told me that she felt my role was unwelcome. “We don’t like people telling us what to believe, especially when it comes from one of you ‘flat-landers’ (meaning non-New Englander).” It was a surprising reaction mostly because I didn’t say anything else than, “I’m a chaplain intern”.
Even more so, this reaction is counter to what I’m doing here. The role of the chaplain is not to evangelize but rather to accompany. A large part of my training is to learn how to recognize my own cultural and religious perspective, and set that perspective aside so that I can hear what the patient and their loved one is trying to express about their own faith. My role is not to tell them what to believe, but be with them as they uncover what they believe in the most trying of times. Of course, it was clear this sales clerk was not invested in learning about my profession. Instead, she was telling me something very clear about her own faith journey, and that deserved my respect even if I didn’t love the avenue which she expressed herself. Part of this experience is being open to read between the lines even when those lines are as sharp as razors. While I felt confident that I had navigated that experience in away that was respectful to her beliefs and my own, I couldn’t help but think, what am I doing here?
All chaplains and chaplain interns must answer to calls in all areas of the hospital when we are on call, but we are also assigned a primary unit. My units are the Birthing Pavilion, Infant ICU, and the Emergency Department. Today, I was supposed to be in seminars all day today, but one of my sessions got cancelled and I decided to make some rounds on my units while I waited for the next session to begin.
As I traveled to the Incant ICU, I learned that some of the patients I had been working with had a rough weekend, and that there is a high possibility that we may lose one or more of them throughout this week. Finding out this news was hard, and after I scrubbed in and entered the unit, I was surprised to find it devoid of parents. I have never been on that floor when there were no parents, and I felt overwhelmed in knowing what to do. I had been operating under a philosophy of when in doubt, look to the parents as a guide of what was needed. With no parents, I felt lost on knowing how to interpret what my role was.
I spent some time with the staff, and prayed with the babies I knew were struggling. As I left the floor though, I couldn’t help but feel an emptiness that my time on the unit was futile. I can pray with these children, pray with their caregivers, but is it enough?
I have now spent over four years working in parishes, and there have been many times when I have wondered if what I was doing was enough, or why God chose me to be with God’s people. In that time, though, I have found ways to find validate my purpose even at those moments when I am frustrated or feeling overwhelmed. There is a consistency to parish ministry that is not available in a hospital setting, and the avenues in which the Spirit speaks to me in a parish are not the same here.
How do you gauge that enough is enough when the person from whom you are providing care can’t speak to you? How do you know enough is enough when you can’t lay a hand on the person you are praying with because they are in a simulated womb? How do you know when enough is enough when the smell of fear is as strong as the sanitizer you scrubbed on your hands?
Recognizing that perhaps I was a bit too hard on myself, I decided to treat myself to a soda from the cafeteria. As I stood in line, ruminating over my thoughts, suddenly the woman at the cafeteria register spoke to me. “Chaplain? Since you have some extra pull with the big guy upstairs, can you please pray for my son? He is having a hard time.”
Suddenly, cafeteria air became very sacred space. The Spirit who I felt distant from on my rounds settled around us and time slowed. I told the woman I would pray for her son, and told her I would pray for thanksgiving that he had a mother who would reach out on his behalf when he was struggling. We exchanged names, and have now taken steps into a relationship together in faith. The whole exchange lasted but a few moments in time, but it was a lifetime of reminding me why I am here.
We never know when we will be open to experiencing the Spirit. I have no doubt the Spirit was with me while I prayed with the children and talked to their caregivers. But I cannot ignore that the Spirit beckoned me into a relationship I least expected, and in that beckoning, confirmed my call.