The Audacity of Need

I still remember the sinking, stones-in-the-stomach feeling that came over me when Atticus Finch lost the trial defending Tom Robinson. I’d been in bed with my covers huddled around me in the chill of my converted basement bedroom when I broke into hot salty tears and ran off to find my mother. I’d never read a story like To Kill A Mockingbird before, a story where the bad guys won. I kept waiting for Scooby Doo and Shaggy to pull off the masks of the thieves and reveal their scruffy faces, red and cowed. I couldn’t believe that moment in the story never came.

I felt the same way the night I got a notification that Donald Trump had been elected president.

Like the earth had shifted out of balance.

Like justice and goodness had taken a fatal blow to the head and would not recover.

I’d gone to bed because I was beginning to see the inevitability of a Trump win, and I could already feel myself getting physically ill. Why stay and up and watch if history wasn’t going to be made after all? But rather, the dark, corrupt underbelly of our country–the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that I thought we licked decades ago–would prevail?

I took the loss personally.

It confirmed all my deepest fears about our country. That America is a place where powerful men can violate women’s bodies and never be held accountable. That America is a place where black men like Tom Robinson are better off trying to run than face the miscarriages of justice in our system. That America is a place where refugees are no longer welcome, but feared, the statue of liberty a postcard relic of our more naive selves, signifying nothing. That America is a place where we exploit our land and animals at the expense of a future generation we don’t have the imagination to care for. A place where the LGBTQ community has not only rogue shooters in the night to fear, but their own government.

I could go on.

This past weekend I went to hear Rep. John Lewis give a lecture. A member of the the civil rights movement’s Big Six and personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr., the man led a march on Selma and had his skull fractured by a police baton, but it didn’t stop him from fighting for justice for the next 40 years of his life. I drove across town to East Nashville, a place where no one looked like me except the handful of white college students. I came because I thought that John Lewis would tell me how to fight. I came because I knew I’d gotten lost.

But John Lewis didn’t explain how to topple hatred and bigotry. He didn’t even mention the name Donald Trump. Instead, he told us about how his father was a sharecropper in Alabama and his great grandfather was a slave. He told us about nonviolence and love.

In a crisp navy suit, he told us about a 70-year-old ex-member of the Klan who’d come to his office just a few years ago to confess that he’d been the one who beat John Lewis at a sit-in years ago.

“I told him I accept your apology, and I forgive you. And he just sat in my office, and we cried.”

John Lewis told us not to give up and to stand for what we believe in, but mostly he just told us to be the Beloved Community for each other.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what that means.

I grew up in a small town in Georgia with a defunct Levi’s factory and an army of unemployed seamstresses. When I moved there with my family at the age of 6, our town had a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. No Walmart, no Burger King, and no industry to speak of, the front porch of each trailer a history of stoves, washing machines, and toys that had given out long ago, but were stuck here, just like the rest of us.

As a kid, I was always aware of the presence of poverty, although my parents never pointed to it directly or gave it a name.

“What size basketball shoes do you think Tanya wears?” my dad asked casually one night, as he, my little sister, and I wandered around Payless.

Tanya was a girl on my under-8 rec basketball team who showed up to practice every week in tattered Keds with peeling soles that split apart from the fabric when she tried to run down court.

“Tanya? I don’t know. At least five sizes smaller than Abby’s,” I said, smirking at my little sister with her long, boyish feet.

My dad rolled his eyes and then pulled out a pair of white, plasticky high-tops with pink laces, examining them with his brow furrowed the way I’d seen it every time one of us was sick with the flu.

The next week Tanya showed up at basketball practice wearing the new sneakers. We never talked about it.

When I was in my early teens, a skeletally thin man with a silver ring of hair around his bald scalp showed up at our house with his sister. He’d driven up in a beat up pick-up with his lawnmower in tow. Their electricity had been turned off, they said, and could they mow our lawn?

The audacity of that need..

In the rural South, hunger and want fight their way to the surface and demand to be noticed. And even so, you know that you’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, the nicest corner of the trailer park.

Today I live in Nashville in a neighborhood of modest ranch houses that stretch as far as the eye can see. We gather on the online community forum to sell old bunk beds, or locate our lost cats, but we keep to ourselves. I attend a church made up of people like me. My husband and I work in white collar jobs and own Macbooks. I share articles from the New York Times about Syrian refugees and the black lives matter movement on my facebook. I don’t think about the town I left. Maybe I’m the problem.

I’m beginning to understand the resentment and frustration of the Trump supporters. His victory caused me to crane an ear toward voices I haven’t listen to in years.

It’s a time to fight as much as it is a time to hear our neighbors and a time to seek forgiveness.

And maybe this is where I’ve failed. And maybe the rural poor, the old man with his lawnmower and little Tanya, these people we’ve–I’ve–failed so profoundly, maybe they can forgive me too.

Stand There: Ministry of Presence in a Medical World

Stand There: Ministry of Presence in a Medical World

I am a tall, young, female chaplain with a penchant for costume jewelry and leopard print accessories. When there’s a death or a trauma, I introduce myself to the family. “I’m Caroline, the chaplain. I’m here for your support,” I say, furrowing my brow and mustering all the earnest concern I can. They look up with red-rimmed eyes, say, “You’re a funny-looking chaplain.”

During my 24-hour on-call shifts, I sleep in a converted old hospital room with the same millimeters-thin blanket and industrial sheets as my patients. Someone has added a dresser, a rocking chair, and a lamp. No one has bothered to remove the “code blue” panic button—pushed when a patient’s heart stops —from the concrete brick wall. They are remodeling this wing of the hospital, and so some nights there is a constant hammering interspersed with the angry buzz of a chain saw from the empty rooms next door.

When I get a page, I rouse and scan the details. “50-year-old man, gunshot wound, level two trauma, 30 mins. out,” for example. I groan and roll over. There’s a misconception that chaplains never curse; I can tell you from working overnights, it is not true. I set my alarm for 20 minutes and savor the last few minutes of sleep before donning my blazer and badge.

Chaplains are out of place in the medical profession. In the hospital directory, my department—the Department of Spiritual Care and Wholeness—sits like an embroidered, life-affirming pillow among the medical pillars of pulmonology and oncology and gastroenterology. Everyday I ask the nurses on my unit if anyone could use emotional or spiritual support. They look at me like I have antlers.

Normally I must fight the current of nurses and techs spilling in and out of the trauma bay if I want to get information for a family. I get pushed aside, ignored.
But. If a child dies or a CPR is failing, or a leg needs amputating, I walk in the unit and the medical staff splits like a red sea.

I don’t have some secret the medical staff lacks. The role of the chaplain is just to embrace the emotion that others try to avoid. Sometimes the patient or family asks me for a cup of coffee, a Kleenex, an update from the doctors in the operating room. I’m asked to contact another family member. I do these things, but I try not to be reduced to my practical contributions.

Allowing others to feel what they feel is a form of hospitality. In The Wounded Healer, Nouwen writes that when we deal with our own issues of hurt and grief and insecurity, we are then able to be with others in their doubt and hardship. We are not so saturated with our own feelings that we cannot enter in. Of course, I can never fully resolve my own struggles; I will always be half-healed.

The Bible is full of unlikely characters, people that had no particular qualifications other than the fact that God called them. I feel the same way as I roam the hospital halls in the middle of the night. I can’t do chest compressions or insert feeding tubes or shock the heart into beating again. My pastoral authority grants me access to most secure areas of the hospital—the emergency room, the ICU, pediatrics—but all I have to offer is presence. I feel like dusty, sandal-clad Moses entering Pharaoh’s temple. I feel like Mary cowering before the angel Gabriel.

One night I entered the cath lab to get an update for the father of a patient who’d come in to the hospital with a heart attack in progress. Gathering all my courage and self-possession, I opened the surgery door and presented myself among the robed, masked surgeons. Before I could say a word, a doctor looked up at me and said, “There’s a scared girl here,” and quietly went back to his work of saving the man’s life.

My supervisor has a saying. Don’t just do something; stand there. We as chaplains testify to the ministry of presence, however homespun and inconsequential it sounds. We affirm the presence of a living, loving God in the darkest places of the hospital—the operating table, the dreaded family consultation room. Maybe it’s appropriate that the bearers of this presence arrive in strange packages. Who better to testify to the wildly improbable claim that God is present in the ER than a lanky, terrified white woman in leopard print flats?

On my way down from the on-call room, I sometimes pray, “Please don’t ask this of me.” I rub my eyes as they try to adjust to the fluorescent lights, pat my hair into some semblance of professionalism. I feel my own heart galvanize, speed up to hummingbird frequency as I walk toward the room, see the relieved nurses start to scatter, to let me do my work of sitting and waiting. I realize that tonight, yes, God is asking this of me. I tuck in my shirt; I look down at my ill-conceived choice in footwear; I inhale. I remember that wherever God sends me, I never go alone.