By Michele LeDoux Sakurai
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep;
and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)
In the beginning, change was in the air. We are a people of prophetic change – the parting of light from dark, rebirthing after the flood, newfound freedom after the parting of the Red Sea, the creation of a new vision through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. All of our Christian history is rooted in change. We have been given no promises or guarantees, save the assurance that God will be with us in good times and bad.
Change is the calling of chaplains. We are invited into the joy of new birth, the fear of new diagnosis, the disappointments of failed interventions, the finality of death, and the promise of salvation. We are trained to be present, to witness the suffering, the surprise, the beauty, and the mystery of another’s journey. Every journey is unique and often not predictable … so goes change.
With change oftentimes comes the darkness of the unknown and loss of control. In a culture that values and depends on control, change is seen as a threat. Living through the prophetic voice, chaplains have the opportunity to transform this threat into a reaffirmation of faith, translating the love of God through a language of hope and mystery. This is what chaplains do best.
But what happens when the crisis isn’t simply about a patient or family? What happens when it is an organization, or healthcare in America, that is in crisis? This is not a philosophical issue somewhere out in the public arena. This change reverberates into the lives of chaplains and staff alike, and the angst of change has become a companion on the chaplain’s journey. A distressed staff member, seeing the shift in healthcare, said to me, “This is not Catholic healthcare; this is not why I came to work in this hospital 20 years ago!” A nurse with many years of dedicated service shared with me, “I now simply put in my time and look to retirement.” This spiritual distress on one level is no different from families who must accept the impending death of a loved one as an era in their lives. As with these deaths, chaplains are called to be a nonjudgmental presence in the death of processes and worlds that people have known and loved.
Yet the spiritual distress brought on by organizational change can be quite different for chaplains. It is much more difficult to honor the value of detachment when the change is personal. The change toward corporatization on the surface feels as if the Catholic mission is being pushed to the fringes. Staff see it, and chaplains feel this shift. Hospitals are restructuring and downsizing. Good and faithful servants – friends – no longer have a place at our sides. Our heads may understand the rationale, but our hearts do not. We feel a sense of injustice as we, too, mourn what we are losing. At times we may also question whether these changes reflect the essence of Catholic healthcare. To feel the grief during this time of change is to live into a pain both real and sincere.
We must embrace this desert experience if we are to be sojourners on this path. This is not a journey that we can control. We are here because we have been called into service, and we move forward believing that in the chaos, God remains part of the healthcare landscape. Our best skills will be put to the test as we mediate the challenges of change and the voice of hope and transformation. As chaplains, we are privileged to have a vision beyond the moment, beyond the fear. Change is God’s invitation, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) To be a messenger of such promise, what greater gift is ours to behold?
Michele LeDoux Sakurai, BCC, is manager of mission and pastoral care at Providence Health Care Stevens County in Colville, WA.