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

<3 a heart that is true love healing those in most need … this is God at work … bless you and all you do. I love the open perspective of this healer who seems to echo many of my ideas of spirituality. It recalls to me a chaplain I spoke with at hospice this last year as my Godfather/Uncle was dying. They too were open to my quirky combination of spirituality and provided wonderful insights and peace. It is blessed work for sure and for those in trauma as described this work is angelic straight from heaven I have no doubt. Thank you for the story.

Sandra, thank you so much for sharing your experience of being with your Godfather/Uncle as he was dying. The days and hours preceding death are luminal moments. What a blessing that you were able to be together, and that the hospital had a chaplain to support you in that process! Thank you for your story!

Just truly inspiring. Keep up the good work peace

Thanks so much for your kind words. Happy (and grateful) to inspire others!

Stunning and stinging...may your level of love always overflow. Thank you, I will continue to read of your ministry.

Oh my gosh Terry, "stunning and stinging" is such an apt description! Thank you for that. And thank you for recognizing the presence of love in my ministry. Blessings.

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes . . . - Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

O love, O pure deep love, be here, be now
Be all; worlds dissolve into your stainless endless radiance,
Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold stars;
Make me your servant, your breath, your core - Rumi

from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice bless'd;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes . . . - Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

O love, O pure deep love, be here, be now
Be all; worlds dissolve into your stainless endless radiance,
Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold stars;
Make me your servant, your breath, your core - Rumi

from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Paul, Thank you so much for these inspiring pieces! Rumi's words, as they always do, brought me to tears. I love the image of God's "stainless endless radiance." My deepest wish for myself and my life is to live in service to God in whatever ways God might call me. Rumi captures that: "Make me your servant, your breath, your core." I believe that everything we do is prayer, and that our breath is God's breath. Blessings on you and your journey.

What a beautiful article. I am also in the vocation of helping people with trauma as a yoga therapist. Its an amazingly fulfilling, fascinating and purposeful life. You are a gift to those you serve.
Warmly,
Anna
vibrantheartyoga.com

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