Posted by: sarahkennedy33 | May 13, 2009

Suspending Judgement

This afternoon I had about 30 minutes left in my day before I had to leave the hospital to get to therapy and decided to do one more patient visit. I have a ton of new patients in the critical care unit that I hadn’t met yet so I decided to start with the first room on my list and introduce myself as the chaplain on the floor. I ran into a situation I hadn’t yet encountered in this internship. 

I enter the room and the patient is a woman who is lying in bed and doesn’t really acknowledge my smile or presence when I enter. Another woman is standing by her bedside. I smile and give my typical opening line—“hi! I’m Sarah, and I’m the chaplain here in this unit. I was coming by to introduce myself and see how you were doing.” The patient in the bed had been eyeing me warily since I had entered, and upon saying the word ‘chaplain,’ I saw a flicker of dislike or distrust in her eyes—whoever I was, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me, especially when I said the word ‘chaplain.’ The woman at the bedside sort of smiled, said hello, and mentioned her name. I shook her hand, looked at the patient, smiled again, and said ‘and what’s your name?’ She definitely didn’t smile but she told me her name which was a little unusual and I commented on how pretty it sounded. This got me a “thanks.” 

Then the woman at her bedside pointed at the patient and said, ‘this is my wife.’ I know that registering surprise of any sort is the #1 pastoral no-no when in a conversation—if you act surprised or shocked or put off by anything someone says they will instantly see that, build a wall and determine you a non-safe person to share things with. So all I said was “it is really nice to meet you both.” Then something interesting happened. The woman at the bedside started rattling off almost a defense of their relationship to me, as if I, as a chaplain, were there to judge their marriage. She said “we’ve been in a very committed relationship for over 12 years, we have been faithful, we love one another very much, we are foster parents to our nephew who needed a place to live” etc. I recognized that she didn’t trust me at all and was convinced she had to defend her marriage to me, and I also knew that there was no way I could provide any sort of pastoral care to this couple if the wall of mistrust and fear didn’t come down. I knew I needed to diffuse the situation a bit and go for a more neutral conversation. So I just responded with “12 years? Wow that’s great! I just got married a month ago myself, I’ve got nothing on you!” “Oh well we just got married officially in November.” “Really? November? Will you tell me about your wedding? What was it like?” 

That did it. The wall fell with a thud and their stories came pouring out. The patient in the bed who had been glaring at me with distrust when I walked in started chattering away about who wore what, what color flowers they had (rainbow themed…), what food they ate, and how it was also grandpas 80th birthday that same weekend. I listened, smiled, and laughed along with these two delightful women as they talked. Before I knew it their individual stories poured out, their journey towards finding one another, their past relationships and marriages, their fear over the health problem that surfaced this morning in the woman in the bed etc. The woman at the bedside said “we are incredibly faithful and spiritual people, we pray all the time, we love God, but sometimes it’s hard to talk to people from churches.” It was a passing comment, and the woman in the bed started jabbering away about something else (they talked over one another often, it was quite adorable actually), but it was a comment that has stayed with me all day and that I keep reflecting on. 

I wish I’d had more time to talk about that with them, to hear some of their experiences with the church. My guess is that they have been pretty painful. I realize that a majority of Christians have strong opinions on the issue of homosexuality. I myself have beliefs and convictions. However, I am starting to wonder if it isn’t more important at times to set aside judgments, preconceived ideas, and prejudices to demonstrate grace, hospitality and compassion to people who practice things that are drastically different than what we ourselves might choose to do. I’m realizing more and more with this job how much baggage comes with the word “pastor” or “chaplain” or even “Christian” for a person. When I enter a room, I have no idea what their past experience is with a church—they could be atheist, they could be Buddhist, they could have been assaulted and abused by leaders in the church or they could be incredibly strong members of a congregation. I have no idea. So when I enter a room that patient automatically, without realizing it, projects on to me all their own experiences and notions about a chaplain or pastor, positive or negative. Some people hate me right off the bat because I represent something they despise. Others immediately see me as a safe presence to talk to. One man didn’t even let me sit down he just grabbed my hand and started begging for prayer. Others politely smile and say thanks for coming by but we don’t need your services right now. Which is fine. When I entered this room today the woman in the bed especially saw the word ‘chaplain’ and immediately projected on to me all the past experiences she has had with Christians judging her. When I asked for details about their wedding instead of engaging them immediately in a theological dialogue she was so surprised she dropped her defenses and started talking. I certainly flop on a lot of patient visits, but this is one where I can honestly say I think that by practicing grace and hospitality in this moment, by suspending judgment and simply looking for ways to love and connect with the two humans in front of me, the two women who were created in God’s image just like myself, I think I was able to be the hands and feet of Jesus for this couple in the midst of their fear and anxiety. 

All I know is that when I entered I got a withering look, and when I finally said I needed to go 45 minutes later the woman in the bed reached for my hand, grasped it, and said “would you pray? And will you come back tomorrow?” 
“I’d love to, I’d really really love to.”

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