By Gary Weisbrich
I grew up on a small farm in southwest Minnesota, adjacent to a wildlife management area. My days were spent investigating Coalminers Creek, a 164-acre semi-permanent wetland inhabited by a multitude of wildlife. I knew that I wanted to be a wildlife biologist. I spent as much time as possible out in nature exploring the wetland, and my favorite class in school was biology.
After high school, my first summer job was sandblasting and painting bridges for $9 an hour. I quit halfway through the summer because a position opened with the Minnesota Conservation Corps at minimum wage, $3.35 an hour. But it was a foot in the door to the job I wanted. I went on to get a B.S. in biology with an emphasis in wildlife management.
My first real job after college was working with the National Wetlands Research Center on waterfowl around the Gulf of Mexico. I trapped fulvous whistling ducks (actually in the same genus as geese) in the rice fields of southwestern Louisiana, fitting them with radio transmitters. The goal of project to gain breeding data. But what I loved most was listening, talking, sharing stories, and developing personal friendships with the farmers and landowners.
I was also part of a team that surgically implanted radio transmitters on canvasback ducks wintering on Catahoula Lake in central Louisiana. We tracked these ducks in a Cessna 171 aircraft. I prayed in that plane on many occasions, pleading that we would make it back safely when we were caught in fog with no instrument flight equipment. Once again, I enjoyed the work but found the shared stories among my colleagues and landowners to be the most meaningful and fulfilling.
The last project I worked on was forested wetland research. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew came right over the 50 study sites in the Atchafalaya River basin in southern Louisiana, so there was before and after data – a researcher’s dream. The work was fascinating, yet the people (Cajuns and Creoles) and their culture was even more fascinating and meaningful. However, most of the time I was doing research and collecting data alone. There was something missing deep inside. It took a while to figure it out, but it was people.
It was a bit strange, since I lean toward being an introvert. But I knew I needed to do something different that involved listening, sharing stories, and meeting people where they were.
I thought that God was calling me to the seminary. Many people had asked me if I had considered priesthood, and I guess I felt that if others saw that quality in me, maybe I needed to explore it. I entered seminary and thought it would only be a matter of time before I would flunk out since I only knew the hard sciences. But I ended up doing very well.
My bishop had me study theology in Rome. I had never traveled outside of Minnesota, Louisiana, and the Dakotas, but I took a leap of faith and spent two years at the North American College. I ended up doing my apostolate in pediatric oncology at the Ospedale Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus Hospital), a stone’s throw away from our residence.
Through the help of several mentors and a wonderful spiritual director, I realized that I was called to ministry, but not as an ordained priest. But as soon as I did not have a job, vehicle, or a place to live, I started to panic. Fortunately, I got a call from friend who was a retired priest, and he said, “Weisbrich, untie the knots in your stomach. God will provide.”
Within a week, the co-directors of chaplaincy at Avera-McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls, SD, where I completed my first extended unit of CPE, informed me of an open on-call chaplain position. On my first day after orientation, I was called to an 8-year-old patient dying of cancer. As I began to don my PPE outside the patient’s room, a chill came over me. For the first time, the past ten years were clear to me. Wildlife management, relationship building, listening to people where they were, working in a pediatric oncology unit – it was all a preparation for this moment.
To this day, I know this is where God wanted me to be, even though it was a winding road with several detours. A thread of my deepest desire and God’s deepest desire came together. As people tell me, “You are still taking care of wildlife, just in a little bit different way now.”
Gary Weisbrich, BCC-PCHAC, currently serves as a chaplain and manager of spiritual care at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, MT.