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

Rev. Emma...I have read your essay twice now. You are such a perfect, potent being of light who also happens to be a very good writer. I do not identify as Quaker, but I am so thankful for the Quaker faith. Such love, compassion, and tenderness. With gratitude for who you are and what you do.

Lisa, Thank you so much for your kind and generous words. I am grateful that you found resonance with my writing and my theology. I would not begin to assume that my beliefs are in alignment with the theology of all Quakers, but I certainly speak for a few. Blessings.

wow, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing an insight from this amazing profession and from such an amazing person!

Alexis, Thank you so much for reading my article and visiting my website! Blessings to you on your journey of becoming an intuitive healer.

Waal what a story. I have always value chaplains and their work. I am a Hospice registered nurse and work with chaplains. I have seen them turning misery into miracles by a simple touch or their presence at the bed side of an ill patient. They empower people to be fully. I like the chaplain that respect other religions, those chaplains minister within the spiritually of the person they serve looks like this one I just read. All I can say is you are called by God.Though you are professionally certified you minister to people spiritual needs. As a nurse I see chaplains having similar care plan with nurses. As professional chaplains listens, assist patients, articulate and assess patients spirituality. Chaplains are spiritual care givers. Godly sent from heaven.

Ruth, It means so much to me that you, as a Hospice RN, understand the impact that chaplains can have with patients at End of Life. I also value that you recognize that chaplains are able to be with people of all faiths, and accompany those people in their religious traditions. In my estimation that is what good chaplains do - we set our own beliefs aside in order to embody the beliefs of those we serve. I am also grateful that you lifted up the role that chaplains have with nurses and other medical professionals. Absolutely we help medical teams to assess patients, but we also offer spiritual and emotional support to medical professionals. We are there for you too! Blessings on your important work Ruth. Thank you for your ministry.

Thank you for your work, Emma. I've recently survived a (diagnosed terminal) cancer, and feel increasingly drawn to situations where I can be a loving, spacious presence with others going through illness, trauma, or end of life. I admire the work you do and seek to learn through you and others who are midwives to the holy in those moments when people are most broken open.

Krys, Congratulations on surviving terminal cancer! Your experience certainly can deeply inform accompanying others through illness, trauma, and end of life. It takes a unique person to be able to sit with someone else in their suffering and unknowing. I honor your leading to accompany others in this way. I'm glad that my experience resonated with you, and hope that you will find ways to be present with others. Certainly oncology units would benefit from your volunteer support. Blessings on you.

As a retired clergy of the United Church of Canada - may I say I think you are right on! Thank you for your candidness and may God bless you - however you understand her to be. You are doing wonderful work that few have the talent and strength to do.

Martha! Thank you, thank you, thank you, for lifting up a feminine image of God. And thank you for acknowledging that the ministry I embrace is one that many run away from. I am deeply aware that trauma ministry is for the select few. It means a lot to me that you, as retired clergy, understand what it takes to be a trauma chaplain. Blessings on you for the ministry you have already offered so many!

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