Next month, I begin work as a part-time hospital chaplain for the Sacramento VA Medical Center. While I’ve been out of hospital ministry for nearly five years, I think I’ll be OK if I remember the lesson I learned 20 years ago on my first day of hospital chaplain training.
The training was called Clinical Pastoral Education and was supervised by Chaplain Timothy Little at the University of California-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Our program enrolled four students, including myself: Vickie, a Catholic layperson; Dave, a new Presbyterian seminary graduate; and Father Frank, a Catholic priest.
Our supervisor began our first workday with various administrative details, but was interrupted by the ringing classroom phone.
“Uh-huh, yes. Right away,” he told the unknown caller. He hung up and turned his attention to us.
“A baby is dying in our neonatal ICU,” he said. “The parents need a chaplain to baptize him. Which one of you wants to go?”
The priest examined his cuticles and said he wasn’t permitted to bless or baptize the dead.
Dave hastily recused himself saying he wasn’t ordained.
Then as all eyes focused on the only ordained person in our class: me. I held up my hands. “I’m Southern Baptist, and we don’t baptize babies.”
Dr. Little insisted that I go because the only thing that mattered was what the family believed. I resisted, saying that my denomination prohibits the baptism of babies.
Just as the heat started, Vickie stood. “I’ll go,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.”
Years later, I’ve processed the incident enough to know that our student responses paralleled those given in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
In my paraphrase of the parable, I see a church fellow who was beaten by robbers and left alongside the road for dead. Two “ordained” men discovered the poor soul, but they wouldn’t help because the delay would make them late for services.
Along came a third person, an “unordained” sap from a minority church. Nevertheless, he stopped to bandage the man and arrange payment for medical care.
The parable reminds me of my initial response that day in class, but unfortunately I was not the Good Samaritan. I was among the “ordained” who walked around the wounded to arrive at the orthodox answer.
Vickie, the “unordained,” was the “Good Samaritan” in our story. An hour after she left the road to help the wounded, she returned to us in tears.
At first, all she could manage to tell us was, “He was so tiny.” She repeated it several times. She told us all how this baby, who was no bigger than her hand, breathed his last breath under the blessing of her hand.
We looked at her incredulously. How had she mustered the strength to do such a thing? That’s when she said something I’ll never forget.
“It was such an honor,” she said, slowly intoning that last word. The family, she explained, had invited her to share an intimate moment in their lives.
Dave, Frank and I stood humbled and ashamed.
Dave and Frank previously said, “I can’t.”
I insisted, “I won’t.”
Yet Vickie concluded, “With God’s help, I must.”
The baptism happened more than 22 years ago. Today, there are still situations when I want to say, “I won’t” or “I can’t,” but Vickie’s classroom witness that day helps me strive toward the goal of saying, “With God’s help, I must.”
It’s a goal I hope to keep in mind next month when I strive to help the veterans I find stranded along life’s road.