O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You are acquainted with all my ways.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
– Psalm 139:1-14 (selections)
Since 2005, I have been involved in health care chaplaincy in various ways. What keeps me coming back is an unwavering belief in the value of each individual, lovingly created by God, in the image of God.
Over the past decade and a half, I have been honored to accompany people through some of the most difficult and meaningful times of their lives. I have spent a lot of time sitting with people who are anxious, guilt-ridden, or lonely. Healthcare chaplaincy sometimes means reading Scripture to someone until they fall asleep. Sometimes it means calling a person’s emergency contact to let them know that they’ve been brought to the ER. Sometimes chaplaincy includes making collages from old magazines. Sometimes it just means making sure that the tissues are within reach of whoever is overwhelmed with emotion. But at the heart of chaplaincy is an acknowledgement of a spark of the divine in each person, and the belief that every individual deserves care and respect.
As people of faith, this shouldn’t be a controversial or political statement. Scripture tells us that those who are humble will be exalted (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; James 4:10). The Bible asserts that humankind was created in the divine image (Genesis 1:26); lower only than the angels in the hierarchy of the kin-dom of God (Psalm 8:5). Jesus was continually reaching out to marginalized people in his society and encouraging his followers to do the same.
And yet, in the commoditized healthcare system of the USA, the assertion that every person is deserving of care is an inherently political statement. If an individual doesn’t have health insurance, or doesn’t have good enough health insurance, they may not get the best level of care. Patients can only stay in the hospital for as long as the insurance company allows. People recovering from surgery are restricted to the rehabilitation facilities that are covered by their plan. And these disparities in care have only widened in light of the current pandemic.
People of color are disproportionately at risk for COVID-19. Risk factors include poverty, being an “essential worker,” and lack of access to healthcare – but even the CDC website lists discrimination as the top risk factor putting “racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”
For those of us providing pastoral care in healthcare settings – how can we best continue to do so during this pandemic? How can we step back from the discriminatory systems in which we work in order to seek justice and care for all people?
For those of us providing congregational leadership or fulfilling other pastoral roles during this time, how can we support all who are connected to our community? Doing ministry with those who are healthy can exclude those who are immuno-compromised or otherwise at risk. Offering online alternatives doesn’t help those with unreliable internet access.
The politics of our society would have us prioritize the needs of the many over the needs of the few. This mindset is antithetical to the Gospel. Our call – as pastors, chaplains, youth ministers, even healthcare providers – is to seek out the one sheep who is in peril, not to care for the 99 who are safe (Luke 15:3-6). Furthermore, our task is to help those 99 sheep who are enjoying their safety to acknowledge the threat to their lost sibling, and to encourage them to help alleviate the threat.
In chaplaincy, sometimes this means spending a little extra time with a patient who comes across as demanding – but really, who is scared of what will happen when their insurance coverage runs out tomorrow. Sometimes this means checking in on medical staff who were unable to discharge a patient to the best possible care because insurance wouldn’t cover it. Sometimes it means sitting with family members who are agonizing over the choice between a few more days with their loved one and financial bankruptcy.
Following the example of Jesus and the teachings of Scripture, our call is always to love, serve, and accompany people even in the most difficult of times. There is no time like a pandemic to bring that reality to life.
Katya Ouchakof is a hospital chaplain and paddlesports professional in Madison, WI (USA). She will gladly wear a face mask for your protection, but looks forward to the time when chaplain visits can take place without a face shield.
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