He had been sleeping every time I tried to visit. I would have left the unit for the third time except a woman who had visited an adjacent room was crying in the hall, so I stopped to talk. Just as my conversation with her ended, the nurse came out of his room. Seeing me she said, “Chaplain, he’s awake now. You need to visit him! He is so anxious. He could use someone to talk to.”
Entering the room, I introduced myself and asked if this was a good time for a visit. Immediately tears welled up in his eyes. I pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down next to him. Quietly, I waited for him to speak.
After some time, I remarked, “I’m curious about your tears.” Slowly he said, “Chaplain, I don’t think God knows where I am.”
“Hmmm,” I responded thoughtfully. “Why might that be so?” He then described his journey through life, filled with choices that had landed him in and out of prison, out on the street and into a series of broken relationships.
Quietly I asked, “Tell me what you know about God.” The question appeared to startle him. He thought for some time, then said, “I don’t know. He’s just God.” In that ripe moment I inquired, “Would you let me tell you what I know about God?”
With his permission, I described a God whose mercy is both deep and wide, and whose compassion instantly responds to appeals for forgiveness. “God is a master at wiping slates clean,” I said. “Scripture says that when you ask for forgiveness it is as if you have never made a mistake.”
He interrupted, “But what about me? I’ve done so much.”
“Well,” I responded, “I can only tell you what Scripture says. The Bible says that God loves you so much He carved your name in the palms of His hands. He promises He will never forget you. As I see it, your name is more permanent in God’s hands than your tattoos are. Truth is, God has never lost sight of you. He has been with you ever since you were a tiny boy. You just had your back to Him. It sounds like He has been tapping you on the shoulder for some time now.”
We sat in silence as he thought about what I had said. When I reached out my hand, he took it and sobbed like a little boy. “Chaplain, can you pray for me? I want to belong to Him.”
“Yes sir, I can. But you need to know something. God heard your heart before my prayer. The moment you wanted to be His, He accepted you.”
After leaving the room, I continued with my visits in other parts of the hospital. And then it happened. A Code Blue was announced overhead. It was the number of this man’s room. His heart had stopped. Doctors and nurses ran to administer CPR.
They worked for a long time, but were not successful in reviving him. As the room emptied of staff, his nurse came out. Seeing me she grabbed my hand. “He wasn’t that sick,” she said. “He wasn’t supposed to die!”
I hugged her as she cried.
As a hospital chaplain at a Level One trauma center, I serve people during some of the rawest moments of their lives. Chaplains care for patients, families and staff in a variety of ways. We sit with families as they wait to hear from the doctor as to whether their loved one will survive an accident.
We stay after the physicians leave, sometimes listening to screams of grief when the unthinkable news is given. At other times we visit from room to room, listening to patients who—like the man in this story—question whether God can hear them because of who they are or what they have done in life.
Sometimes chaplains are called to care for an organization’s staff members. They may be asked to pray in a department for the staff after a day when several procedures did not turn out well. In addition, they follow up with staff when it looks like an event has triggered something personal in their life.
Then there are times when the staff themselves turn to the chaplain because of personal issues. One night a nurse pulled me aside. With tears in her eyes she said, “Just before I left for work tonight my husband told me he wanted a divorce. He said he won’t be there when I get home from work in the morning. I don’t know what I am going to do.”
Footprints of God
Chaplains also conduct chapel services, Blessing-of-the-Hands for nurses and other staff, and dedication ceremonies. With the increase in people not attending church, some staff tend to see their chaplain as their pastor. They turn to chaplains to do weddings, funerals and for theological questions.
The hospital where I work is a safety net hospital. We serve the poor, the marginalized and the uninsured for our state and for the states surrounding us. Jesus spoke of my patients when He talked about the “least of these.”
My job is hard, but the rewards are many. Each day as I look into the rearview mirror of my shift, I see the footprints of God at work. It is my greatest honor to serve Him at the edge of His kingdom.
A Diverse Calling
The Seventh-day Adventist Church has chaplains all over the world. According to the North American Division Adventist Ministries website, there are over 550 chaplains in the NAD—nearly 35 of whom serve in the Mid-American Union.
Some of these chaplains work in Adventist institutions such as academies, universities or hospitals and are paid by the Adventist Church. Others, like myself, are employed in non-Adventist institutions.
We are endorsed by the Adventist Church but are paid by the organizations that hire us. We work in hospitals, hospices, correction facilities, law enforcement, fire departments and the military. Currently, the church has about 145 chaplains serving in the military.
Through an offering taken annually on the second Sabbath in June, military church members in uniform receive Bible kits, church periodicals, devotional books and other religious literature.
For more information visit www.nad.adventistchaplains.org.
—Carol Turk is also a member of the Mid-America Union Conference Executive Committee.