Margins, Stories, Faces

Originally published  By Leah Wise

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

As you very likely have gathered, I have been swamped working over 40 hours a week as a hospital chaplain since May 18th.

Chaplaincy 101

While I knew what I was getting myself into in terms of workload, I don’t think there was any way to understand what it would feel like to hold the stories of dozens of patients at once.

I work with a specific group of individuals at a specialized hospital who are more likely to have PTSD and addiction disorders compounded on top of whatever acute need brought them to the hospital. Baseline anxiety is to be expected for any hospital patient, but with complicating factors, it can be a lot to take on. I have had the honor of praying with people through their fear, comforting people (as best I can) as they recount stories of loved ones that have passed away, watching Covid patients as they move from the Covid ICU to critical care to discharge, and sitting with patients whose fears and pain for the world around them override personal concerns. I have heard testimonies of horror, relational disaster, and abiding faith. I have cried, a lot.

I‘m learning that each person in a hospital bed is an encounter with God. On the outside of the hospital, there may be no reason for us to form a connection – indeed, we may be ideological enemies – but inside the unit, between the patient and I, at least, there is not much more to give than attention to one another.

I do not meet physical needs the way a medical team does. I don’t coordinate care like a social worker or create a plan of action like a psychiatrist. I say hello, I make myself available, I let the person share their story. Sometimes they move toward greater meaning-making. Sometimes they feel seen for the first time in a long time. Sometimes they ignore my attempts at reaching out. All responses are welcome.

In the radically dependent, foreign territory of the hospital, we chaplains remind them that they are beloved. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has told them. They are beloved.

And I am reminded in the WTF-inducing, everyday miracle of the hospital that I am beloved, too.

There’s a lot more I could say. There’s a lot I have said, to my cohort, my family, my husband, my Facebook friends. And the nature of serving in this role during a pandemic and an anti-racist movement of global proportions has made each day and each conversation feel all the more essential.

Minds must be changed. I am learning how little I know, and how little advice I can give. The blessing is the narrative. I am changed by story, not by ideology. People’s lived experience matters.

Innate dignity must be recognized. Things change when we are seen and known, when we drop our defenses.

This is true, of course, in the case of black lives.

White supremacy is a normative claim. As ethicist Marjorie Suchocki puts it regarding Western Christianity in particular:

“[In the Western imperialist system], Christianity is the norm whereby other religions can continue to improve what is best within themselves. Christians, in turn, affirm what is positive in other religions, accepting what is of value and discarding the worthless…”*

While this critique of western Christianity is apt, I believe it extends further outward to encapsulate whiteness as a construct.

As long as whiteness is the “benchmark” for social acceptance, grotesque dehumanization will continue to occur. Instead of confronting the poisonous roots of white supremacy, America – and indeed the colonized world at large – has failed to overthrow traumatic systems, refused to change its collective mind by ignoring “non-normative” stories, and chosen to ignore the innate dignity of its people through an intentional, pernicious “editing” of anything it has deemed “marginal,” not a part of the story.

Chaplaincy is teaching me at the microcosmic level what it looks like to do something different, to see the marginal notes as the story. Because, indeed, it’s what we have not been allowed to see that reveals the truth.

CPE is taught through fumbling. Sure we have reading materials and guest speakers sometimes. But the real work happens by the hospital bed, in two people meeting. It is not satisfying work because the metrics are fuzzy and the “success” or “failure” of a conversation is largely only known in the hearts of those who had it, and maybe not even then.

That is the human work, though. We will never be satisfied.

But sometimes we’ll see the Divine in a shock of light and remember that we’ve been gazing into a human face the whole time.

*emphasis my own. From The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, eds. John Hick and Paul F. Knitter

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