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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Emma, what you are doing is wonderful. You have been given an extraordinary gift from God. One question I have to ask is, After this life is over, where do our souls reside for all eternity? You mentioned that you are a follower of Jesus. He is very clear on the topic of eternity, so if we are true followers, we must believe what He says. Also, I have to wonder exactly why you would choose to attack Paul by saying that he had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. What does that comment have to do with your wonderful work? My prayer is that God will open your eyes to the complete picture. That one day you will be talking to the dying about their Savior. You have been given a great responsibility. You are a child of God. However,your comments about Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, and the Bible, well, it's pretty clear where you stand on that topic. We are all free to believe what we want. God has given us that choice. But you are dealing with people at the most critical time of their lives...their step into eternity.

Your comments: "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 don’t know if heaven or hell exists, but I’m open to that possibility."The Bible is a helpful reference guide for me, but certainly not the word of God. My job as chaplain is not to judge someone else’s theology, but rather to help them to understand it more fully.


Thank you for taking the time to read my piece and respond. I can see in your writing your deep desire for others to experience the sense of peace and fulfillment that you have in knowing you will reside eternally in heaven with your Savior. Were you to find yourself in my hospital, in the last days and hours of your life, and I were called to minister to you as the hospital chaplain, here is the prayer I would offer to you:

“Oh Lord, we rejoice in You. You know everything about us. You know us from the tops of our heads to the bottoms of our feet. You know us and You love us because we are your children. Just as You bring us into this world you lead us out, when it is our time to return into your loving arms. Heavenly Father, we ask that You be here with your son Stan. Help Him to feel your love, and open Your arms wide to him. Lord, we know that it is only You who decides when we leave this world and we just ask that You bring Stan home to You when You are ready. Stan has been Your loving and faithful servant. He has abided by You. He has known only You through Jesus Christ. We ask that You lead him to his Heavenly home. As the Apostle Paul said our true citizenship is in heaven. We also ask that You be with Stan’s family when he leaves this world, that You protect them and keep them safe, that You care for them in all ways possible. Lord we know that all things are possible through You. All of this we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Blessings on you Stan.

Emma, I could not ask for a more beautiful prayer when that day arrives. Blessings to you as well and to all the lives that you touch.

Emma, Thank you so much for your candor. When I did CPE, I kept wanting to be paged to the ER (I never was, in CPE, or later as a volunteer hospital chaplain) but my great teacher came in the form of a seven-year-old non-verbal child whose silence taught me grace. I learned my calling was not to the ER or big trauma, but to a ministry of presence to those wading in still waters to companion them into eddies of deeper meaning. As much as I thrummed to your essay/post, I loved even more your line about prayer because I say all the time "I live my life as a prayer" or "my life is the prayer." Sometimes the prayer is vocal, sometimes silent. Sometimes a dirge, sometimes hallelujah, sometimes a stumble or splat and sometimes a leap of faith into the arms of grace. CPE taught me the words of the prayer matter far less than our presence in it. And I love that our breath is God's breath. My friend from CPE says we are the lungs of God. I invoke Ruach Ha-olam, the Breath of the Universe for that reason. Lastly, I love everything you said about the bible and God and how chaplaincy is not a theological exercise. I found in jail chaplaincy where many chaplains are hellbent on evangelizing, the practice of presence and embodied compassion are what occasion the metaphor of a syllable we utter as God.

Leaf, What wonderful, juicy images you present for the presence of God! Inspiritus, the Spirit within, came to mind for me with the image of being the lungs of God. Words can be so limiting as descriptors for God, yet you posted many that rang true for me. And yes, CPE does have a way of clarifying our true calling! May your life of prayer continue to bless you and those around you.

GRACIAS ! Your sharing inspires me .. Please recommend a Hospice Program here in Washington DC , where I now live . I want to volunteer. Bless you !

Maria, I am so glad you are inspired and would like to volunteer with Hospice! I'm actually not familiar with any Hospice programs in the DC area, so I hope that other readers might be able to answer your question. Blessings.

I have lived a trauma dominated life from the time of birth, and am greatly inspired and encouraged by your life and this article. I have done what I can to pay it forward, stay grateful, cope, adjust, reframe and find meaning and am under incredible stress at this time from loss and grief and the particular frustration of unfair victimization by glib thugs. Prayer, meditation, service wherever possible is the way for me. Finding balance and yet pulling out all the stops to practice the presence of God not unlike that described above. Open, where closing is more likely, seeking, while fearing to find only what is, accepting. Thank You.

C, Thank you for your faithfulness friend. I don't know why some of us experience more trauma than others. I am delighted that you have chosen to survive your trauma, and to remain open to the presence of God in your life. God is with us in our suffering, God hears our deepest cries. God laments with us, holds us while we weeps, and hears our prayers. Sometimes our prayers aren't answered in the ways we imagined they would be. Sometimes healing looks different than what we hoped for. I love the image of God as a mother hen, wrapping wings around us, holding us close. May you feel God's arms wrapped around you today. Your life and your testimony are an inspiration to me. Thank you.

Thank you.


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