I became a hospital chaplain at the ripe young age of 24 years old, as a seminarian student. I knew very early in my life what I hoped to do in my career and went to college and graduate school with the intention of becoming a hospital chaplain. I met my first hospital chaplain, and my first female minister for that matter, when I was 17 years old and my grandfather was dying. The chaplain came to offer comfort to our family and I was immediately taken with her and what she did.
I’d have to say that being a young chaplain makes for a very different experience when visiting patients and their families than other chaplains might experience. At first, they are often curious about me. They want to find out what led me to this career, how I became a chaplain, and how long I’ve been a chaplain (this one always cracks me up-are they trying to figure out my age (29) or my competency?). Then they ask me about my family, where I am from, what I like to do, or anything else that might help them compartmentalize or make sense out of a young chaplain. And then they begin to parent me sometimes. They don’t want to burden a young person with concerns of the old, suffering of the elderly; they want to protect me from those griefs because, after all, it is weighing on them so it’s bound to weigh heavily on me. They ask me how I can bear doing this work. So I tell them how I appreciate everything I get to learn and about the amazing experiences I am so honored to be able to be a part of. I tell them ‘I take home the good stuff’.
Many of my patients want to teach me about what they have learned in life. I think it is a desire to spread their legacy, as well as teach me about the lessons that were hard for them to learn so I might be able to avoid any suffering/agony/waiting that they maybe had to endure. And I certainly don’t mind. Learning from my patients is one of the main reasons I love my work. They teach me so much about what I want in life, illness and death. Sooner or later they realize that I’m capable of hearing their hurts, and they open up. As soon as they know I am serious about journeying with them, that I will respect their disclosure by remaining present and listening well, they start to talk.
Life as a young chaplain is a good life. Because I often visit patients who are much older than me, our age differences cannot be ignored. However, I relish those moments when age disappears and only two people remain, one who is hurting and the one who offers compassion. There is mutuality in that moment, one that allows the patient to trust and share with me, and a moment when they realize I am strong enough to hold them in their hurt. This is why I became a chaplain; these moments when I encounter an experience I know can only be described as graced because I could never have created it on my own.