By Elaine Chan, MSW, MDiv, BCC
Last September I started a new job as chaplain at New York Hospital Queens. This year I prepared for my first Ash Wednesday, making arrangements to distribute ashes to about 200 patients and another 300 or more staff, volunteers and visitors on the various hospital units as well as in the first floor chapel throughout the day. Patients would also be receiving Communion upon request. Additionally I planned a prayer service in the chapel. I had about three or four Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to help me, but knew I needed more.
The Holy Spirit prompted me to put up a notice in the volunteer office, asking for help. To my pleasant surprise, nine volunteers who work in other parts of the hospital, several of whom are also Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, offered their services. I had planned an orientation for all volunteers, but individuals weren’t available on the same day so I hoped to train them that morning. However, when I walked in on Ash Wednesday, folks were already lined up for ashes! Thank God the new volunteers were already present and ready to help. I explained to a eucharistic minister that she was to put ashes on the forehead while saying, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
A little while later I noticed that the volunteer was putting three dots on everyone’s forehead and not the cross. I quickly corrected her, but several folks had already gotten the dots including an administrator and the head of volunteers. The head of volunteers told me she realized this and had another eucharistic minister make the sign of the cross. God has a great sense of humor, but I was a bit embarrassed!
The rest of Ash Wednesday went well. We had a great turnout for our Ash Wednesday service, overflowing our little chapel. A few Spanish-speaking family members of patients came to the service, and I had a volunteer read the Scripture in Spanish. We also had a great response on the hospital units as well as in various departments of the hospital. We were still distributing ashes after 5 p.m., by which time I was exhausted!
All the Catholic volunteers, including those who had not previously volunteered for pastoral care, told me that they felt a great deal of satisfaction since patients, visitors and staff were most appreciative. Two of the women eucharistic ministers are in their 80s and told me that they had never distributed ashes before. They felt empowered by having this opportunity. In fact all of the Catholic volunteers told me that they had never distributed ashes before. It meant a lot for them to be able to do this and to be a part of this important religious day.
Another notable event in my first few months at the hospital was a pastoral visit with a Catholic Vietnam War veteran. The fellow had trouble speaking and kept apologizing for this but I felt he spoke eloquently both in word and action. He is still dealing with the trauma of his wartime experience. He showed me a scrapbook that he had made with a map of Vietnam, pictures of his fellow soldiers and him as well as pictures of terrified civilians affected by the war. Several of his comrades did not make it. The images were moving and powerful. The first page of the book read, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done.” This simple phrase summed up his theology of what had happened to him during the war, his acceptance of it and his continued faith and trust in God.
I felt overwhelmed by what he was sharing with me and prayed to God for help about what I may need to say or do. I realized that I did not have to say or do anything, just listen and appreciate the gift that he was sharing with me. It was a privilege to see his notebook and witness his faith. The encounter also gave me a good idea for doing a scrapbook in a spirituality group for those with neurological damage or other traumatic injuries.
New beginnings are not easy. I have had my share of starts and stops. Through it all I know God has been present. God is aware of all that is happening. God reminded me of this one day when I complained to a eucharistic minister that I was running out of rosaries to give to patients. Later that day I met the daughter of two patients in the hospital who has a rosary-making group. She subsequently sent me 500 rosaries. I had never seen so many rosaries in my life. A religious sister friend of mine said I was in rosary heaven!
Chaplains have a special role to listen to those who are suffering and/or dying and witness God’s compassion and love to them. God encourages us and tells us what a good job we are doing. We may not feel that we are doing enough or doing it well. However, this is not the point, as God continues to tell me. Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things — only small things with great love.” ¬May God bless you, yours and your ministry!
Elaine Chan is staff chaplain at New York Hospital in Queens, New York, and is a member of the NACC’s Editorial Advisory panel.