Unlike many hospital rooms, hushed by near death or crammed with worried loved ones, security guards stood over a lone prisoner when Samuel Kennedy entered this one.

The prisoner, now a seriously ill hospital patient, curled himself in a fetal position. A native Spanish speaker, he had been laying silent in shame and fear, with nobody to translate and no visitors for comfort or prayer.

In walked Kennedy, a new student chaplain still feeling his way in a sterile clinical realm where humanity of all stripes arrive to face major illnesses or trauma.

Kennedy greeted the man by name. Then he introduced himself, in Spanish.

"My name is Samuel. I am one of the chaplains here in the hospital."

Me llamo Samuel. Soy uno de los capellanes aca en el hospital.

Relief flooded the man's expression to hear words he understood.

"He was afraid," Kennedy recalls. "I was able to reassure him that God was able to hear his heart, even when he wasn't able to speak it."

A chance to offer that kind of spiritual presence has drawn Kennedy and a diverse lot of lay people and ministers to Roper St. Francis' Clinical Pastoral Education residency program, an intense 400-hour theological program that trains people to become hospital chaplains and otherwise minister to those facing illness and death.

Many students start the program unsure how to approach a person facing a terrifying diagnosis or the death of a spouse or parent or child.

How do you prepare for that?

You live it, day in and out, for a year. Because when the call comes for a chaplain, someone is in crisis and needs you.

Diverse group

The chapel at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital fills with feathery white light welcoming those gathered for the program's graduation day.

This year's pastoral education graduates are young and middle-age, black and white, women and men, ordained and lay people. They are Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Presbyterian, nondenominational and others. There's a former attorney, Air Force chaplain, carriage tour guide, medical saleswoman and several ministers and priests.

All have completed a common goal.

"This is about those sacred and holy moments you all have shared together," says the Rev. Amanda Jones, a chaplain who's director of Roper St. Francis pastoral care and its pastoral education program. "You have given much, and I am grateful."

Perhaps it says something that a graduation for 17 students has drawn not only the CEOs of St. Francis and Roper Hospital but also David Dunlap, CEO of the entire nonprofit health care system. No seat sits empty.

The nationally accredited program offers a one-year residency for those who want to become board certified chaplains. Students here have a master of divinity degree or equivalent and an ecclesiastical endorsement. They receive a stipend.

The program also offers shorter internships each fall and spring, along with an 11-week summer intensive. These are designed for ministers, rabbis, lay people, chaplains and seminarians who want to learn more about spiritual care in a health care setting.

This August's graduating class has dealt with people grieving, terrified and "who have gone to the graveyard and been unable to leave," says David Hutchinson, manager of the pastoral care education program.

"This is never a finished journey," he adds.

Holistic care

With graduation behind him, Kennedy is embarking on a future as unique as his past. He grew up in Savannah until middle school when his parents became missionaries working with indigenous people in remote areas of Costa Rica.

"It was extreme poverty by our standards," Kennedy says. "There were no options, no choices. But there also was a wealth of appreciation for small graces."

His parents toiled to bring medical and spiritual care to residents in need, an approach that molded the young man's thinking about a person's holistic health.

"It opened my eyes," Kennedy says. "That combination of medical and spiritual care was the most tangible expression of God I had ever seen in my life."

A tension nagged: Should he devote his life to providing spiritual or medical care to people?

Kennedy headed to college, then to Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary. He graduated and recently was ordained into the transitional deaconate, a stepping stone to priestly ordination, which he likely will receive in coming months.

He also enrolled in the local chaplain residency program.

Now 31, he's walked into countless patient rooms to offer prayer, guidance or an open ear. He's been surprised how many patients already feel God is walking with them when he enters.

"But there are definitely those who feel his absence," Kennedy says. "For others, there are moments when they feel very close to God and moments when they feel abandoned."

Many wonder why God allows their suffering. Others parse their pasts, anxious over wrongs done and forgiveness never sought or given. Many just want prayers for healing.

"God is already present in the hospital," Kennedy says. "The times I feel most weary or worn is when I forget that."

At St. Francis, Kennedy responds to emergencies and makes rounds in the intensive care unit, among other duties.

"The word that comes to mind about what we get to do here is gratefulness," Kennedy says. "Patients let us journey with them in their pain and sorrow."

Next up? He is considering medical school from here.

The boundary piece

Today, all but one staff chaplain in the Roper St. Francis system graduated from its pastoral education program, started 22 years ago by Sister Gemma Neville.

Its supervisors use everything from seminars to hands-on care to explore three key areas: students' pastoral identities in how they relate to people, their own identities and their spirituality. All affect how people care for others.

Students also hold workshops to discuss their intimate, intense encounters with patients and families. They examine their own histories and reactions to see what they bring into a patient's room.

"It's the boundary piece. What is my story, and what is their story?" Jones says. "It is core to our curriculum, and it is a very vulnerable place to be."

They also explore their own religious views and how to avoid interjecting them, even when they disagree with patients.

"We're not here to proselytize patients. We're here to meet them where they are," Jones says. "It's not about changing people's theology. It's about ministering to patients."

Chaplain to be

An outgoing and athletic woman, Bonnie Torrence started her career as a recreation therapist.

A decade later, she switched to selling medical devices, a career that for 15 years meant an enviable paycheck and a comfortable life in corporate America.

Then she began going on international mission trips.

"It opened my eyes to human suffering in a way I had never seen before," Torrence says.

It also caused much soul-searching.

"I felt very uncomfortable in my work," she recalls. "It was in my face: You've got to do more with your life."

The idea nagged. So she completed an online seminary program while still working. Yet, the idea nagged more.

Torrence, who grew up Baptist, recently quit her job to become a full-time pastoral education student.

"I had a lot of fear, a lot of insecurity," she says. "Would I be good enough?"

The first few times she knocked on patient doors at Roper, she stumbled over her words and felt herself trying to get out of the room - quickly.

She was used to cold-calling. But gone were go-to questions like, "How are you?" And suddenly, the talkative personality that made her a great saleswoman threatened to overwhelm distraught patients and families.

So she learned to listen more and talk less. She also learned that, like her, many patients are facing huge transitions.

"I feel like a co-sufferer and laborer and friend walking beside them," Torrence says.

She just graduated from her internship. Next, she starts the year-long residency on Tuesday, eager to walk longer with those patients through their suffering and, whichever form it takes, their ultimate healing.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.