I Am a Midwife to the Holy

Friday, February 21, 2014 - 5:42am
I Am a Midwife to the Holy

A Quaker chaplain offers some candid insights on being a minister to trauma. In the midst of chaos and suffering, she writes, deep shame can transform itself into hope.

Commentary by:
Emma M. Churchman,  guest contributor
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Terminally ill hospice resident Evelyn Breuning, 91, prepares to receive communion in her bed at the Hospice of Saint John in Lakewood, Colorado.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

When I was a child I never dreamt of being a hospital chaplain. I generally detest hospitals and I don’t trust medical professionals. Hospitals can be giant cesspools for infection and disease; they smell funny. So when I found myself in my last year of seminary training as a hospital chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, I laughed out loud in discovering hospital chaplaincy is a true vocational calling for me.

In CPE, I discovered that I am a trauma junkie.

The world made sense to me the first time I was paged to the ER for a dying patient. Most people who work in trauma (ER/trauma doctors and nurses, EMS, police, firefighters, etc.) are drawn to trauma because they come from trauma.

My own family of origin is a unique cesspool of trauma. I viscerally understand what it’s like to experience physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual trauma. I have spent my entire adult life trying to survive and overcome my childhood trauma. In chaplaincy, I have been given an opportunity to utilize the coping skills I developed in response to trauma and get paid a salary. The deep shame I have carried from my trauma has transformed itself into hope.

Chaplain Larry Grimm sits with terminally ill hospice resident Chiu Ning Yuan, 89, in the chapel of the Hospice of Saint John.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

It is oddly comforting and familiar to be with others during their trauma experiences. When I am standing in a trauma bay with a screaming patient lying on the table surrounded by doctors and nurses shouting orders with family members in the waiting room wailing for God, I am at peace.

A few weeks ago, within a three-hour stretch, five different traumas came into the ER, including two drivers who had hit each other, a pediatric trauma that involved physical and sexual abuse of a young boy by his older cousin, a logging incident resulting in spinal paralysis, a traumatic brain injury in a young man due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a older female patient in cardiac arrest.

By the time I left the ER that afternoon, I still had 15 hours left of my 24-hour shift. On days like that I try to pace myself. I pray into those days, asking God to guide my ministry when I am too spent to think clearly. When the pager goes off yet again after my fifth attempt to lie down in my on-call room to sleep I pray that God will show me how to be present to the patient and family I am about to encounter in the middle of the night. I also pray that God will wake me up enough to be able to find the back door to the ER at 3 a.m. Sometimes I leave the hospital feeling faith-filled and well-used. Other days I just go straight to bed and don’t get out of bed until I have to go to work again.

Massage therapist Nikki Hernandez embraces terminally ill patient Jackie Beattie, 83 at the Hospice of Saint John.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

As a chaplain I hold hands, pray, find warm blankets, and bring hot coffee to those who need it. I cry. I laugh. I remain silent when there are no words that could bring comfort. I am the person that staff, patients, and families turn to for comfort. I lay my hands on those who are suffering, and weep with them. Sometimes I pray verbally, but often silently. I wipe away tears and I hug equally into grief and joy. I place my hands on the heads of doctors, nurses, EMS workers, MedFlight pilots, and police officers and bless them. I ask God to protect them and keep them safe. I ask that their hearts remain open to those they serve.

I wait for the coroner to arrive and hold a dead baby when its mother cannot. I go on rounds with doctors and help interpret medical jargon. I gather staff together to debrief particularly challenging traumas — especially pediatric physical and sexual abuse cases. The staff want to protect these children and help them heal. They take it personally if these children die on their watch. I take it personally.

As a Quaker, I was taught to find that essence of God in all people, and I strive to be open to all spiritual possibilities.

My goal is never to convert patients to Christianity, to save them, or to baptize them. Personally, I don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I am not baptized and don’t believe I need to be saved in order to be closer to God. I am a follower of Jesus’ teachings, but I would not call myself a Christian. My theory is that the Apostle Paul suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and was more focused on streamlining and managing Christian churches than on following God’s will.

The Bible is a helpful reference guide for me, but certainly not the word of God. Prayer can be verbal, but it can also be nonverbal for me. I believe that God created us, but that God also gives humans choice to live into God’s will for us. I don’t believe that God causes suffering; I do believe that God suffers alongside us. I don’t know if heaven or hell exists, but I’m open to that possibility.

Chaplain Claire Nord, prays with Ken Sheel, terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, and his family while on a home hospice visit.

Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

My job as chaplain is not to judge someone else’s theology, but rather to help them to understand it more fully. Many trauma patients would not self-identify as spiritual, however, theology tends to appear when someone experiences a life-altering trauma or illness. Patients want to understand why they are suffering, and they want to look back on the trajectory of their lives and question their choices. I get to be a part of those discerning conversations.

I am a child of God. I am a trauma survivor, a compassionate listener, an empathic healer, an intuitive truth teller. I am a death doula, a minister to souls, a witness, and a guide: a midwife for the Holy. I walk alongside those who are suffering and afraid. I help others to discern God’s will in their own lives. I serve as a reminder of God’s presence in each moment. I am the Quaker shaman.

An extended version of this article was published by Friends Journal.

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Emma M. Churchman is a life-long Quaker and member of Swannanoa Valley Meeting in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She has a MDiv from Earlham School of Religion and a private practice as a spiritual director and transformational coach. She is currently in a chaplain residency program at Johnson City Medical Center in Johnson City, Tennessee. You can read more of her writing at Friends Journal.

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82Reflections

I, too, was a hospital chaplain. It was inspiring to read the other chaplains words. Some were true of my experiences, some not so much. One thing that rings true in my experience as well is that as a chaplain I brought Gods Presence to the situation.
It was a great honor and I am awed that I got to bring God with me, Emmanuel, God with us!
God is forever with me and you, but it was a special announcement that came with being a chaplain! Thank you, Jesus.

Donna, Thank you for your faithful service to God and God's people. Thank you for bringing God's presence into your encounters with patients, families and staff. Blessings on you.

Thank you for a well written inspiring article. I recently graduated from a Quaker MA program and am trying to discern what I really want to do as a vocation. Yesterday after a couple of days retreat I came away with a focus on healing and reconciliation. I thought about chaplaincy and questioned whether I would be a good candidate since my Evangelical faith has gone through some major deconstruction. I thought it quite timely when I read your article today. It makes me consider that a less rigid faith construction may actually be a strength if I were to pursue a career as a chaplain. My degree was taught almost entirely by Native American professors and I have grown to have a real respect for the way indigenous cultures address major life transitions and communal life that promotes belonging and well being. Just want to say thanks for putting your thoughts out there. You never know who might need to hear them.

Ed, Ah, discernment. One of my favorite topics! I believe that God is constantly inviting us into spiritual discernment and that God communicates with us in a myriad of ways. Some of my favorites are song lyrics, dreams, and giant billboards on the side of the road I'm driving down. Perhaps God has discovered the On Being site? God is funny like that. ;-) If you are questioning whether or not you can be a "real" chaplain, let me be your inspiration. ;-) Truly. There is no spiritual or theological box I seem to be able to fit in, and yet I could not be happier ministering to a Southern Baptist, or a Quaker, Jew, Mormon or Muslim. We are all seeking God's guidance and understanding in our lives. A chaplain accompanies others on their spiritual journey, whatever that looks like for patients, families and staff. Ideally, our theology and beliefs do not get in the way. I hope you do apply to CPE! And keep me posted: emma@quakershaman.com

Emma, you have written a wonderful description of the work health care chaplains provide all across the country to people no matter what they believe. You have represented the profession well and I thank you for that.

David, Your kind words mean so much to me. Thank you. I hope that I have represented our shared profession well, and that I have done justice to the many chaplains that have come before me, and certainly to those who have served in this profession much longer than I have. Thank you for your good ministry in supervising chaplains!

Emma. Thank you for writing. Your style is wonderful and your language inspires me to begin writing more publicly about my own experiences. Chaplaincy can be such a blessing to so many. May those who need to hear your words, be receptive and use them to heal themselves.

Chaplain Randee, Yes! I hope you do begin writing more publicly about your own experiences. I am learning that is in my expression of vulnerability and authenticity that true healing takes place. I hope you find this to be as true as well. I'm so glad you found inspiration in my writing. Thank you for your ministry of chaplaincy. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and reply. Blessings.

Such a moving and inspiring piece from a dear friend. Been so long since we have been truly in contact with one another. It sounds like you are making a "difference" in many lives. You should be proud of yourself - I'm proud of you! You such such a wonderful Human Being. God Bless you.

Jimmy! So good to hear from you, and thank you for taking the time to read my piece and write. Thanks for the props. Let me hand some back to you: thank you for your ministry as a sheriff! I work with a lot of police officers and sheriffs at the hospital and get a first hand glance at some of the parts of those challenging jobs. GBU and the good work you do.

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