I had no preference of where I wanted to work in the hospital during my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experience. In our program, you are assigned to a general floor and a specialty floor to work as the chaplain. Somewhere towards the end of the summer I began to feel this still small voice drawing me towards behavioral health, a voice that had perhaps begun the year before when a friend told me they were looking for chaplains at his supervised ministry placement in a behavioral health facility. Certainly, the issue of mental health came into the picture for me because a friend has recently struggled and shared with me his experiences on the psych ward. Yet his openness about his experience dredged up memories of three close friends in high school being institutionalized, seeing family struggle with depression and substance abuse/misuse, and just seeing people in church denying needing help though they were obviously manic. Much of my motivation to participate in a CPE program was growing up seeing my mom spend most of her parish ministry visiting folks in hospitals and knowing that I too will be doing visitations as part of my ministry; so too, as in my own life I can see just how much we all all touched by mental illness, I thought it was my responsibility as a future pastor to be able to destigmatize mental illness in my church and learn how to minister to those in the struggle.
Once I had been assigned to the behavioral health unit (referred to often as 7E in the hospital) and shared it with seminary friends, I had one tell me of her own experience with adolescent depression and another tell me that her own father had spent time in a behavioral health unit. Mind you, I had not even begun working yet, all I had to do was mention it and my belief that it is important for ministers to destigmatize mental illness and stories came flowing out.
But I am writing this piece not to talk about the why, though I have spent so much space already on that it seems. I am writing this because I began my ministry in 7E today. I was nervous. When I had stopped in a few hours earlier, one of the nurses announced my presence, asked who wanted to speak with me and then left me to resounding no's. So, instead of sitting with folks and being for a few moments, I escaped easily, promising half-heartedly to return later. When I did, I did not announce myself, I just said hi to folks watching the TV, wandered down the hallway, and just when I was about to leave again, decided to first go through the dining room/game room. A young man was in there, and we greeted each other. He was collecting board game pieces, monopoly money, Life cards, and so I assumed he was manic, unable to sit still, and probably not capable of holding a conversation. I am an asshole.
I smiled at him, started to walk away, and then he asked me where I was from. I turned back and sat down next to him. He proceeded to tell me about himself, where he was from, what he studied, a little of what brought him to 7E. He was, in fact, bipolar, and a recovering alcoholic, and he spoke plainly to me about the program and how much of its merit to him was that he saw examples of what he did not want to become. I was shamed for walking by him, but apparently not enough. When I was leaving I asked him if he would mind if I kept him in prayer. He said of course he wouldn't mind, and as I got up to leave and started to turn my back he said that he would be keeping me in prayer as well.
On my first day serving as a chaplain, I escaped (I guess I do that a lot) to the chapel in the hospital to try to re-center myself and breathe. In the prayer book put together by the Pastoral Care department, I found a prayer ending with those words about presence:
I often try so hard to be the presence of God part of this prayer, but as is apparent from this story I miss the mark completely. But this young man in 7E was the presence of God to which I was witness today. God of healing, forgiveness, renewal, all wrapped into one stark sentence, "I'll be praying for you too."