Diary of a Part-Time Chaplain Impersonator
On a typical day, I find that the hospital smells a bit like the last moments of my life are being wiped up by a janitor with a clean rag and a gallon of disinfectant. Today, it smells less like finality and industrial cleaner and more like an outhouse. This is because an uncapped and not-quite-empty urine jug is about a foot beneath my nostrils. When I asked the patient if he wanted to pray, he reached over and grabbed my hand, then pulled my arm across the cheap rollaway table parked near his bed. On the table were books, get-well cards, and the leftovers from lunch. Also the urine jug, which looked like it had a small pool of apple juice at the bottom. The man’s grip is like a vice. I am stuck. I close my eyes and we pray for his recovery from the amputation.
I am not a chaplain, but I play one every Tuesday afternoon at our local hospital. “Spiritual care volunteer” is my official title, I think. We’re a small farming community, and our hospital is tiny. Anyone with a serious medical problem is either freighted off in the ambulance or strapped into a helicopter and sent to the main hospital in Bend, an hour’s drive to the south along our desert highway. Our volunteer coordinator once told me the wider hospital system does indeed have a chaplain, that he came to town sometimes and that someday I’d have training with him. I’ve never seen him. He is a unicorn with a white collar.
It’s not that I’ve had zero training in hospital ministry. My pastor, who roped me into taking over his spot on the volunteer roster, had me observe a couple of his visits before handing the reins over to me. “It’s not that complicated,” he said. “You knock, introduce yourself, and ask if they’d like prayer. Sometimes they say no, sometimes they say yes.”
I’m a Christian. Christians know how to pray. Jesus even prescribed a specific prayer for us. This should be easy.
It’s easy in the sense that flying an airplane is easy because “you go up in the air and then come back down again.” Nothing quite prepares you for the emotional sucker-punch of hospital visitation, and no training could fully equip you for walking into the room of a stranger experiencing immense pain and sadness. Car crash victims struggle with the death of friends and relatives while grappling with their own life-changing injuries. Wide-eyed young mothers fearfully clutch infants whose temperature never seems to fall. Visiting elderly patients can be especially draining. Loneliness and bitterness is a common theme with them. I’ve visited some senior patients who’ve used my presence as an opportunity to list all the people who’ve they lost and, sometimes, all the people that have ever wronged them.
After visiting patients like that, I wonder what will remain of me when time’s eroded my memory and faculties: a heart of stone or a heart of flesh?
I recently visited a widow who’d suffered a work injury. When I asked her how she was getting along, she broke down and tears and told me that she’d been alone since her husband died, and with her injury she’d be forced to give up the business they’d run together. She sobbed and asked me to leave. What do you say to that? She’d told me she wasn’t a church-goer. Scripture would be a platitude. I left the room and closed the door. Feeling helpless, I said a silent prayer for her and moved to the next room.
But it’s not all doom and gloom- not by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve met many patients whose hope, determination, and trust in the Gospel have been truly inspiring. Take my friend with the urine jug, for instance. When we finish praying, he turns his wrinkly, smiling face towards me and asks where I go to church.
“Above Truck Stop,” I say. Truck Stop is what the locals call the 24-hour cafe attached to the Shell station on the south end of town. I don’t know if the restaurant has a real name. Our church is on a hill directly above it. I normally give a longer explanation of where our church is, but I’ve had this exact conversation with this patient a total of six times in two visits. Besides, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet, brevity is the soul of wit.
“Ah, Truck Stop. I’ll have to come visit you when I get out,” he says. His hand tugs at the frayed ends of his yellow and red-stained leg cast, which ends abruptly below the knee. The amputation doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. He is more concerned about my reading habits.
“You know, I’ve been reading Wesley,” he says. “Charles and John. Commentaries and hymns. You ever read them?”
I tell him I have. We discuss the travels of John Wesley for the third time. I turn to leave, and he asks one final question.
“Will you pray with me before you go?”
I laugh a little and say yes. Giving the urine jug a wide berth, I walk over to his bed. He takes my hand, and, to my surprise, he begins to pray for me.
There’s no pay, and the people can be rough, but you can’t argue with the perks of the job.