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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82 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours

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

Roberta, Thank you so much for taking the time to read my piece! Blessings.

So inspiring! I hope when my end of life time comes, if it comes quietly and there is time, that someone like Emma is available to help me see the light of this part of the human journey! Thank you and Peace.

June-Ruth, Thank you for your kind and generous words. I hope that your transition out of this world is full of peace and liminal moments. I, too, hope that someone is with you during this sacred time. Blessings!

I am so blessed to hear your reflection here. so blessed are you to know your calling at what I consider such a young age. I graduated from Bethany Seminary in association with Earlham School of Religion in Richmond. Wish I had known you but am glad to have met you here today.

Ken, what a great connection! Of course as an ESR student I took courses at Bethany. I really enjoyed learning from their professors. Blessings to you in your ministry. And thanks for calling me young: I just turned 40! ;-) I liked reading that.

I work at a police department with seniors in crisis. I have attended the Episcopal Church since I was a child, but my feelings regarding God, Jesus and spirituality are very akin to yours. God be with you,
fellow traveler...

Donna, Thank you so much for your ministry with seniors in crisis! That is intense work. Of course I appreciate your theological kinship, and affirmed that there are other good folks out there with similar beliefs. God be with you!

Emma,
Thank you for putting words to some thoughts and feelings I didn't even know I had.
As I watched my wife fight, and then, die of a brain tumor I learned many of the things
you mentioned...sit, listen. Everyone has a story.
Blessings.

Doug, Thank you so much for sharing your story of being with your wife as she journeyed with a brain tumor. I can only imagine what it was like for you to accompany her, and support her, knowing there was nothing that you could do to fix the problem. I'm imagining if she died of a brain tumor it was inoperable. How do we be with others in their struggles, be witness to them, without taking action? It sounds like for you learning to sit, be with, and listen was an important part of learning how to accompany your wife. I honor you for supporting her in this loving way. Blessings on you.

Emma, i don't mean to be negative, as you are obviously involved in some wonderful work, but, I think you're details views of your own beliefs I think were ill judged in this particular article. These amounted to a personal creed (which you are entitled to obviously) and i think quakers need to be alive to the danger of a kind of inverted intolerance. They are also self contradictory - you say that you would never convert your patients to christianity and then go on to explain that you would not call yourself a christian. firstly, I would hope that not chaplain would use such an opportunity to convert a person to their own view (christian or otherwise) and secondly, who in the right mind would convert someone to something they didnt believe in (ie you said you werent a christian) i get the point that you call yourself a follower of jesus; i just think this thinking seems a bit muddled; sorry. As for the apostle paul; again you're entitled to your view obviously but i think it unwise in an article that is supposed to be focused on the patients and their beliefs to give a detailed view of of your own beliefs. Whether paul was mentally ill or not; i believe he was loved by God and at least he brought us that wonderful phrase 'God is Love'. don't mean to be negative; i wih you blessings in your journey and in your work Emma

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