Every day I step into a blizzard that has swept in on someone’s life. I’m a chaplain in an acute care urban hospital. No educational process can truly prepare you for assisting your fellow human beings in navigating such storms. Recently, I ministered to two teenage boys who had to disconnect the respirator keeping their mother alive and watch her die. We gathered around her bed at 3 am to anoint her with myrrh and lay on our hands, and one of the boys asked, "Isn’t there anything God can do?" There is no lesson on how to make a daughter who dies in the emergency room from an overdose presentable for viewing by her parents when they arrive at the hospital the following morning. There is no chapter in the textbook that trains you for being present for the induced birth of a fetus that died in utero with the mother screaming, "Why am I being punished?" There is no degree that prepares you for ministering to the middle-aged woman who is alone and caught in the limbo of chronic disease, not well enough to take care of herself, not well enough to stay out of the hospital, who asks, "Is this what God intended for me?"
The work of a hospital chaplain is simply to keep a fire burning in order to offer some respite and company to travelers in this land of illness and accidents, to be a welcoming presence so they might warm themselves a bit and rest before traveling on. Earlham School of Religion gave me useful tools: waterproof matches, methods of fire-starting, training in how to build and bank a fire, and some understanding of how to keep it going. It’s a simple ministry, but it isn’t easy.
Ten years ago this fall, I was 41 years old and started work on a Masters in Divinity degree at ESR. It was a long time coming and the road to ESR had plenty of twists and turns. The beginning of the leading came in 1990 in the form of a cancer diagnosis. I was 30 years old, had just passed the California bar exam and my bright future suddenly looked dark, bleak and, above all, very short. The question that emerged during a year of surgeries and chemotherapy was, "What for?" that is, a spiritual question for meaning and purpose in the face of an unfortunate circumstance of life. The answer was, "I was sick and you visited me."
The next ten years involved healing and spiritual formation, that is, a disciplined reflection on my own spiritual journey and a study of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines within Christianity and other religious traditions, as well as distinctively Quaker spiritual practices. Formation, of course, is a lifelong process. If having a lifethreatening illness taught me anything, it was that well-developed spiritual muscle is necessary for enduring the overwhelming hardships of life, and I found mine woefully unconditioned. I practiced law to make a living and my practice focused on the ill, the elderly, and the disabled, who were all dealing with the legal ramifications of those conditions in their lives. When it became clear, through personal reflection, corporate discernment, and spiritual interpretation of certain circumstances of my life, that I wasn’t following God’s orders fully enough, I found a clinical pastoral education (CPE) residency at a local hospital to learn the practice of chaplaincy and spent that year discerning the leading with a clearness committee from my meeting.
In the final quarter of CPE, the question at hand was, "What now?" It had become clear that I was led to a vocation of hospital chaplaincy, and the requirements of the field necessitated the Masters of Divinity degree. It had also become clear in the course of theological reflection during the CPE residency that I was in need of more grounding in theological understanding and training from the Quaker perspective. It was as if I had completed a major remodeling project without paying proper attention to the cracks in the foundation, such as lack of training in theology, spirituality, and pastoral care (including the distinctive Quaker approaches to these subjects), as well as grounding for public ministry. As part of that discernment, I traveled to Richmond, Indiana, to attend the Quakers in Pastoral Care and Counseling conference. While I was there, soaking up the experience of being amongst "my people" (other Quaker pastoral caregivers), I also discovered Earlham School of Religion. "Eureka, I found it," is the motto of my home state of California, and that was my experience. So I caught a train to the Hoosier state to attend ESR.
The Bible, theology, Christian history? Oh, my! Why would a liberal Friend from the unprogrammed tradition—a lesbian from Berkeley, California, no less—choose to get a theological education in rural eastern Indiana? Was I crazy? Well, a little, I guess; but the simple answer was that my partner and I were welcomed there. That welcome was evident from our first steps onto campus. It was always assumed that "we" were we. Both of us were welcomed in campus extracurricular activities and in the classroom as a matter of practice and policy. That is a very big deal, especially when welcome is not to be presumed in most places that identify as Christian. We were offered true Christian hospitality at ESR. We saw that students from every theological stripe, demographic group, and personality type are welcomed at ESR. Students are encouraged to leave their theological swords at the door and engage in open and honest dialogue with each other. This is not easy. Richmond is a small town, ESR is a small school, and students ate, played, studied, and worshiped together. We learned how to get along even if we could not agree.
Practicing community in diversity is taken seriously at ESR, and learning how to communicate with people who are very, very different from each other enables me to do the work of a chaplain. A hospital is like a small city. It runs 24/7 and has a hierarchy and power structure all its own. It has staff that wear blue collars, pink collars, lab coats, white collars, scrubs, aprons, and overalls. The patients come and go and come back again. They bring their families, loved ones, and lives with them. The world of trouble—poverty, violence, injustice in all its forms—comes through the doors with the face of human misery. The human condition lies in each bed and sits in each bedside chair watching and waiting. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the major religious denomination is "none," with smatterings of everything else. These are the people of my congregation. An ESR education taught me how to navigate this territory with ease in the face of difficulty, and grace in the face of awkwardness, by requiring me to articulate my own theology and beliefs, to grow in confidence and spiritual maturity, and to engage with others who have different points of view with integrity and love.
This emphasis on spiritual formation runs through an ESR education like the stitching of the "Peaceable Kingdom" quilt that hangs over the common area of the main classroom building. As a chaplain, I bridge to others all day long. The waters that flow underneath this bridge are full of peril. Unless I remain anchored firmly in my own tradition and theology, I will weaken and collapse. The spiritual formation element of a theological education at ESR is the stitching that holds the patches of theological education together. At ESR, class offerings and requirements for spiritual formation permeate the educational process, such as spiritual preparation for the ministry, discernment of callings and gifts, and the requirement to partake in spiritual direction. I have learned from my colleagues in ministry that this type of training is an unusual element in seminary training. I have carried these practices with me into my life of ministry to guide and sustain me.
I cannot overstate how important it was for me to go through this process of transformation amongst Friends. As a chaplain in a healthcare setting, I am, by definition, a stranger. I’m a representative of the spiritual element of life, a foreign presence in a world where science, technology, and the bottom line are the language, culture, and currency of the land. Among my chaplain colleagues, I am an oddity: no liturgy, no order of worship, no prepared sermons, no clergy. I am not at home—but then again, neither are our patients. When they come into the hospital, their clothing is put in a bag and they are given a flimsy institutional gown to wear that doesn’t cover well nor keep them warm. A wrist band is put on with information that is checked again and again. Medications cloud the mind and numb the body. No, they are not home either.
Quaker author Parker Palmer writes about the symbolic "rope from the house to the barn" that enables us to find our way home when one of our own life’s blizzards obscures the way and we find ourselves lost and in peril. It is easy when working in the ministry to get lost in the blizzards of other people’s lives and the condition of the world. My ESR education in Friends practices, processes, worship, theological perspectives, and history has been a rope that enables me to find my way when I am feeling disoriented, alone, and afraid.
In my last year at ESR, I asked my field education preceptor how to provide a memorial service that honors the deceased and their family, while remaining true to my own tradition. He replied, "Just bring the Quaker into it as much as you can." That’s the approach I continue to use every day, whether with Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Pentecostals, Muslims, atheists, or fundamentalists. It is a simple ministry, but it isn’t easy. ESR prepared me for it as well as any institution could.