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Crossing Borders In Times of Suffering

by Beth Jackson-Jordan


April 20, 2015

Crossing Borders In Times of Suffering

Beth Jackson-Jordan

Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!

In my work as a Chaplain and Pastoral Educator, I often encounter people in the halls of the hospital looking lost and bewildered. Usually, they’re clutching a piece of paper with a name and a room number. I stop to point them in the right direction as they look for the room of a spouse, a child, a parent or a friend.

Often, I see in their eyes the same despair Naomi voices in the book of Ruth when she finds herself in a strange land, grieving the deaths of her sons and her husband. Naomi’s response to her loss was to return to the familiar - her homeland. Since her loss had taken away everything that previously defined her, she began that journey by declaring a new name. “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”

A hospital can feel like a strange and even hostile land to those whose lives have been interrupted with unexpected crisis. It is a self-contained community with a particular language, culture, and set of social norms that can be difficult to navigate for outsiders. Within this world there are structures that can be even more alienating for those who live on the margins of society. As chaplains, we are called to cross the borders that cause persons to feel unseen and unheard in this world of healthcare.

Hospital chaplains encounter persons experiencing suffering who may feel cut off from their sources of strength and hope. A woman grieving the death of a stillborn child who has no funds to pay for a funeral... The non-English speaking family of an emergency room patient whose doctor doesn’t take time to call an interpreter… The elderly patient given a stack of papers and prescriptions at discharge with no caregiver to help them manage at home... These are just a few examples of persons who find themselves dealing with despair and loss in the unfamiliar world of the hospital.

In Naomi’s story, hope comes in the form of a young daughter in law, who chooses loyalty and love over self-interest.  Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law trumps the ethnic and religious social norms of her culture. Ruth offers to be a companion to Naomi, not only in her physical journey home but also in her journey through grief and suffering. There is not a lot of God talk included in the book of Ruth. Yet we see the presence of the Holy in the care and compassion Ruth offers Naomi – more through her actions than her words.

As caregivers in a hospital setting, we can learn much from Ruth’s response to Naomi’s suffering. When we meet people who have endured profound loss we may feel powerless to help. We may be tempted to pull away emotionally and hide behind a professional façade of healthcare jargon and procedures. Yet, even a brief interaction that conveys empathy and compassion can allow a person to feel accompanied in their suffering rather than alone. As chaplains we can notice and advocate for those on the margins to be treated with dignity and compassion. Our presence and our care can remind the healthcare team that compassion is as important as technical skill in our care of patients and families.

The culture of healthcare is outcome oriented. Anything short of a cure is often viewed as failure. It can feel very vulnerable to emotionally connect with people when we feel powerless to cure their suffering. Yet, as Ruth teaches us, we are called to compassionate solidarity with those who suffer - even when we cannot control the outcome of their situation. Like Ruth, we are called to notice and advocate for those who are the most powerless within our healthcare community. 

As chaplains, we remind our co-workers that this compassionate connection in the hospital is not limited to those in a particular role. Physicians, environmental services staff, nurses, volunteers, transporters – the title is less important than the ability to see and respond with empathy rather than hide behind a professional role. It happens when we reach out in compassion and, like Ruth, convey to the other, “Where you are going, I will go – I may not be able to change your suffering but for this moment, I will journey with you in your suffering. You are not alone.”

Beth Jackson-Jordan is the Director of Spiritual Care and Education at Carolinas Medical Center Northeast in Concord, North Carolina. She is a board certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and a Certified Supervisor with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.

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