Today, I wore my collar while at the hospital for the first time.
One of the nice things about being Lutheran is the access to the accessories. Besides the stole and the cope, seminarians have access to quite a bit of the “traditional” clergy attire. My Episcopal friends are not so lucky. So, today, I decided to come to the hospital decked out in a black clergy shirt and a plastic collar. On the subway, I also donned my gray newsboy hat, my aviators, and my red chucks. Like one of my colleagues said, all I needed was a goatee and I could be “that” pastor. You all know the type I’m talking about. Luckily (or maybe sadly), aviators are not allowed in the hospital so I put my chucks aside, busted out my Ted Bakers, and went to town.
And I must say, I loved the experience.
My colleagues thought I looked nice. My supervisor called me Padre. I had to tell the story of Lutheran access to accessories several times. But besides the looks and support I received from my colleagues, I noticed that I seemed to take myself a tad more seriously and playful while I wore the collar. I had no need to worry about my authority as I was wearing it on the outside. Doctors recognized me, nurses who ignored me now took notice, and patients seemed to open up easily. No longer was just the word “chaplain” my entry way into the spirituality of those in the hospital. When I walked into the room, the patients saw spirituality and responded in kind. It was quite lovely.
There was one specific event where I feel, had I not been wearing my clergy shirt, a ministry opportunity would have gone unfilled. One of the Patient Care Directors on my floors asked me to see a patient who was dying. The food intake was being turned off and the family had been gathered for two days, waiting for the end. I walked into the patient’s room and began my speech. They all nodded along but it wasn’t long before I realized that they had very little idea what I was saying. They spoke Spanish. I spoke English. We both literally were not speaking the same language.
One of the family members came into the room and spoke to me. He spoke English and he pulled me out of the room to chat. I could tell that he was trying to push me out of the room (he revealed some family dynamics and his own personal religiosity that looked down on a chaplain being in the room) but I stood my ground and offered my services. As I turned to walk away, the spouse of the patient (who came out of the room to talk to a doctor) stopped me. Through a translator, the spouse asked if I was a pastor and asked if I could pray at the patient’s bedside. I said yes but I could only pray in English. The spouse did not hesitate for a minute and asked me to enter the room. So, there, in front of the patient’s family, I prayed. I acknowledge the harshness of the time. I acknowledge the pain that the family felt. I acknowledged that death was coming soon (though I went about that in a circular way – I need to get better at saying it more bluntly). I prayed with the family. I read Psalm 23 and Psalm 121. I offered my condolences. Some of the family cried; some just kept their heads bowed. But as I left, the spouse shook my hand and said “Thank you.” And I think he, and his entire family, meant it. If I had not been wearing a collar, I would not have been able to pray with them, there, at the bedside.
There is only five more weeks of CPE but I think I’ll wear my clergy shirt at least once a week. It is an experiment that I am having a lot of fun with. Maybe too much fun. This is CPE after all – there’s only so much fun that I should be having.