Loaded Questions. No, I am not referring to the board game which often brings my closest friends to a whole new level of awkward awareness. This blog is about a different ‘loaded question.’ At work, I am often asked “What is a chaplain?” Simple enough, right? We are clergy who care for those outside of the church setting. Both in the hospital and military, chaplains provide support when bad news is pronounced. We go see patients who are angry or difficult to manage. In our hospital, we respond to traumas. We sit with families when their loved one’s heart stops beating. We provide a ritual of life and blessing to a mother and father whose baby died before given a chance at life. We meet with those of other faith traditions and those with no faith tradition, and listen without imposition. Fifteen letters…four words…one loaded question. What is a chaplain?
Let me share with you a quick story that caused me to think about this question more. Today at work, I was talking to a male nurse about a patient and as the conversation ended and I was walking away, he asked aloud, “What is a chaplain exactly?” I responded, “We are like pastors for the hospital, here to care for patients and staff.” He said, “Well, you just don’t…look like a chaplain.” (Believe me when I say I get told this almost every day, often multiple times a day – apparently I look “young” for a chaplain, or so I have been told.) One of the boisterous female nurses on the floor shouted to the male nurse, “What, you’ve never seen a young cute chaplain?! You expecting Quasimodo or something??” She began to laugh loudly with one of the other nurses. We all began laughing. The nurse then began to fan herself and dramatically said, “Ohhh Lord, I gotta fan myself. I gotta behave – I’m in the presence of a chaplain!” A third nurse shouted jokingly to her, “Yeah, especially with that illegitimate child of yours!!” To which the boisterous nurse playfully shouted back, “You think I’m bad? You’re the lesbian!” Laughter erupted out of all of our mouths. We couldn’t stop. I felt like we were all suddenly standing in the confessional booth instead of a nursing unit. They somewhat jokingly apologized to me for their “bad behavior,” and I told them they had no reason to apologize, especially because they really had made my day with their comments. I think that story paints a beautiful picture: What is a chaplain? What caused these hilarious staff members to say the things they said to me?
I think about the times I am in the ER and purposely turn by badge around backwards when I go to meet families. I do this because often times, people think the word “chaplain” means “I am coming to tell you your loved one has died.” (Just as FYI, at least at our hospital, we never tell someone their loved one has died – the physician does). For some people, the word “chaplain” means “I better behave around my co-workers when the chaplain’s here because a lightning bolt might come through the ceiling.” (Do people really think we have the power to produce an electric discharge on the universe?) For other people, it means “You are a safe environment in which I can talk about my situation, my fears, my family, my diagnosis – because you do not know me and you will not judge me.” And still for others, it means “You are coming to evangelize me and I don’t want to hear it.” (Another common misconception: we do not evangelize at the hospital – chaplains are taught to listen empathically and use the patient’s story as the jumping off point to move towards deeper meaning).
I guess the underlying question is: What do people really mean when they ask what a chaplain is? Are they asking about who a chaplain is? Who I am? What we do? I’m continuing to ponder this question. Here are some of the funnier things I have heard…
One day, a patient was angry at the world so when I walked in his room, he ripped off his hospital gown, threw it at me and shouted, “Make my nurse get me a new gown, I pissed myself!” What is a chaplain?
Once a patient asked if he could pray for me since he knew his soul was saved. What is a chaplain?
Someone once asked how much they should tip for my chaplain visit. What is a chaplain?
More than once a patient has asked me, “Did someone tell you to come see me because I don’t go to church anymore?” What is a chaplain?
Also more than once, I have walked in a room and upon seeing my badge, the patient or a family member has burst into tears. What is a chaplain?
Today an older male patient (who already had given me the heebie jeebies on a prior visit) asked me if I would help work out a kink in his back with a quick back rub. What is a chaplain?
Perhaps there isn’t one hard and fast answer to this question. Perhaps the answer to this question is one that will take many years of reflection to answer. I guess I’ll have to get back to you with my answer. And you know that's hard for me since I like to have answers to things right away...but I shall wait.
And just to clarify, I didn’t give the old man a back rub.