By Blair Holtey
There was this fellow who was not too happy with life. He was the kind of person who, if told to have a nice day, would respond with something like, “That’s okay, I already made plans.” He reminded me of a blowfly, and his words were like the larva that finds its place on open wounds and sores and causes disease. I’m sure you’ve met him before. I will call him Mr. Green.
I was in my 20s when I met Mr. Green. He lived in the nursing home I sang at each week. I was known as the strolling minstrel, and I would knock on as many doors as possible, ask if the resident wanted to hear guitar music, and provide bedside melodies. For over a year, I would knock on this man’s door, say “Hello” and ask if he wanted a visit. The reply was always the same: “@#$%,” and he’d always tell me where I could go! Every week it was the same kind of response, but I never stopped.
After a while, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t knock, if I didn’t ask to enter; rather, I would just walk slowly by so he could see me and hear me outside the door, but I wouldn’t pay attention to the man. That is exactly what I did for a couple weeks, until one day Mr. Green yelled out from his room, “Hey there!” He called me by my last name (I didn’t know he knew it). “You don’t just go walking by my room without stopping to say ‘Hello.’ Aren’t you going to ask me if I want to hear your @#$% music?” I responded that I didn’t think he cared. He told me I didn’t have a right to ignore him. From that day forward, I was invited back into his room, and we eventually got to know one another. I can’t say we became friends, but I can tell you that he was befriended. I continued to stop by his room every week but never played my guitar or sang; just sat at his bedside listening and indulging in reminiscence.
This experience with Mr. Green taught me, at an early age, that the gift of presence cannot be valued or undervalued, whatever way you want to put it. Similar to the Mona Lisa, it is priceless. How can we put a price on human presence? What value did Mr. Green’s “actual being” play in the life of a young man? We don’t know. We can’t place a value on his life or on the lesson I learned that day.
On an occasion where we love as Jesus loves us, we find openness to the transcendent. Mr. Green’s openness to a strange young man, pounding “Kum Ba Yah” on his 12-string, was probably just short of a metanoia moment! I believe that our cultural boundaries were lifted, and we both experienced meaning in life and how to live morally.
Chaplaincy is an encounter when God invites us to provide an atmosphere, no holds barred. The phrase “no holds barred” refers to the way people used to wrestle before rules were designed to keep the athletes safe. Literally, one could wrestle with any move, regardless of how much it might injure the other contestant.
The value of chaplaincy is just that: there are no rules, except to value each encounter with another person. We hope that one’s clinical pastoral education has taught the minister to use various modalities to reach those he/she encounters.
And what have others said about the value of chaplaincy? The answers vary.
I have sung with teenagers at the bedside when they see the response of a dying cancer patient, and their face lights up! Value? Doctors gave me varied responses. Some stated they were not sure about our value, while others have told me we play a vital role in the care of their patients. Very recently, a local businessman called to let me know how much chaplains mean to him, that they are the most important people in the hospital because they bring people to the Divine Physician and provide openness to being healed by the medical staff. Articles report the monetary value of chaplains.
But the value of chaplaincy is ineffable. There are endless opportunities to invite people to the table of Jesus, and to illustrate the correlation between human experience and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But to “do” theology, to describe the value of our work, it needs to occur where one person encounters another in all rare forms.
Blair Holtey, BCC, is pastoral care coordinator at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, FL.