By Marilyn Bucheri
“How do you do it?” I am often asked. “How do you go into such horrific situations – 9/11, Newtown, Boston?” But I know I don’t enter those situations alone.
My entire life has prepared me for ministry that I now have been doing professionally for over 20 years. I grew up in an Italian family and spent a great deal of time with relatives, including going to wakes and funerals at a very young age. I learned very early on that death was a part of life. Through my varied ministries, my CPE education and my spiritual directors, I have grown in ways I could never have imagined when I first started on this journey. I learned that the important lessons of listening, being present to people and walking in their journey for a short but significant time are central to being a chaplain.
In 2001, I was a chaplain at Yale/New Haven Hospital. On 9/11, I was not working. As soon as the shock of the attack registered, I called to see if I needed to come in to help. But as the tragedy unfolded, we realized that there were not going to be many survivors. The next day when I went to work, I was asked to prepare a prayer service for the next day for the staff and patients at the hospital. We continued prayer services for several days, responded to staff and patients to listen and provide a spiritual presence as we all processed the devastating attack.
Several weeks later, I received an email from the NACC saying that the American Red Cross was looking for chaplains to be trained for a spiritual response team. I answered their appeal and flew to Chicago for a training program. While there, I met chaplains from all over the country. Up until that time, Red Cross chaplains deployed mainly for air disasters, but 9/11 brought chaplaincy into a new era.
For me as a chaplain, I see that ministry is a call and response. When I responded to Red Cross, it was a call – the type that comes from very deep within my belief that God calls us many times. I said yes to that call, not knowing what it was going to mean to me or how it would change me. I came back from training in Chicago and joined the local chapter in Farmington, CT, trained locally and became part of a disaster action team.
I have been deployed to many disasters with the Red Cross, but the deployment to Newtown in December 2012 left the most lasting impression on me, both as a chaplain and as a mother and grandmother. It was so close to the holidays, when families gather to celebrate the joy of being together. The tragedy in Newtown changed that for all who were directly affected, extended family and friends, the nation and the world. But my training prepared me to respond to the call. My first assignment was the Family Assistance Center, where families came to learn what financial and personal help they could receive from several agencies. I was available to offer spiritual support to the families. Since I was originally from Connecticut and had worked at Yale New Haven Hospital, I was able to reach out to former colleagues to gather nine chaplains for a large prayer service. This past December, at the one-year anniversary of the shooting, I found my emotions were still very raw.
Last April, I responded from my home on Cape Cod to the Boston Marathon bombing. I arrived during the second week, when several prayer services were being planned and a family assistance center was opened. At a very small prayer service for people who were directly affected by the bombing, I along with a rabbi helped wheel a person who had lost a leg in the bombing. It was very emotional for her and for us. Again, the gift of presence is what we offer to people we support as chaplains. The day of the very large prayer service for the MIT policeman who was killed, I along with other Disaster Spiritual Care members, offered support where policemen from all over the country came to board buses to the service. We all rode different buses to be a presence to the more than 1,000 police who attended. I witnessed Boston Strong rising from what was a horrific act of terrorism to a coming together of a city, state and nation. I’ve even converted from being a Yankee fan to a Red Sox fan!
When I joined DSC as a chaplain, I didn’t realize how it was going to impact and expand my ministry. As I reflect back, I see that my role over the years as a chaplain had prepared me for this type of crisis ministry. I was always very comfortable being in emergency situations which are fluid and changeable.
In 2009 while on hiatus with the Red Cross, I volunteered with Mercy Corps, a Sister of Mercy Volunteer Corps. I was assigned to Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, to be a member of their Spirituality and Health Initiative at the hospital. This ministry was a natural extension of my own desire to explore spirituality and how it affects not only our understanding of God’s presence in our life but how our health is impacted.
I believe one reason I can do this ministry is because I have heard the call so many times in my life and have responded with the deep belief that I don’t do what I do alone. My lived spirituality shows me that God is very present with me, and – along with family, friends, my spiritual directors and CPE supervisors – was the avenue to growth in ministry.
Marilyn Bucheri, BCC, is a chaplain at Falmouth Care and Rehabilitation Center in Falmouth, MA.