The gift of presence

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Oct 20, 2017

For a couple of months, I have been engaged in a new ministry -- or, actually, have returned to one after several years' absence. I have been able to do it only sporadically, but when I do, it is so rewarding that I hope to be more regular about it.

I'm a chaplaincy volunteer at Pen Bay Medical Center. I got back into doing this through one of those "accidents" that aren't really accidental, just not consciously planned. I ran into Chaplain Abby Pettee at the ordination of a mutual friend and, because I'd been a volunteer visitor years ago, asked her whether the program still existed. She invited me to have a fuller conversation about it than she had time for right then, and we met a couple of weeks later.

The program I had been part of does not exist anymore,as such, but there are a few volunteers who work under the chaplain's supervision to offer visits to patients. This has again become a ministry I am privileged to take part in.

When I go to the hospital to visit, I wear the badge bearing my picture that identifies me as a volunteer. I check in with the nurses in the unit where I'm visiting to see who might like some company -- and to be alerted to anyone who should be left alone because they are feeling unwell or for another reason. Then I walk along the corridor, looking into doorways to see who is awake and has no visitors already. This is the awkward part of the process -- determining who is a candidate for a visit, and then introducing myself.

I usually tap on the door, walk in and say something like, "I wonder if you would like some company?" I explain that I'm a chaplaincy volunteer and, if the person is agreeable, sit and visit for a while. I ask about where they live, whether they have family nearby, and try to draw them out a little. Sometimes I just sit quietly and wait for them to speak. If I sense that they might be open to prayer, I'll offer to pray with them, but I'm equally comfortable listening to whatever is on their mind. With one woman I visited who was apparently unable to speak, I just sat by her bed and held her hand for a while.

The gift of this work is connecting with people, and the trust they put in me when they tell me their story, however much of it they want to share. It always feels like a precious and fragile thing arises between us when we meet as person to person. Somehow, it is special just because we are strangers to each other, with no history or expectations to get in the way. We can be present with one another in silent acknowledgment of our common frailty and vulnerability.

I sometimes wonder what on earth I have to offer someone in the hospital dealing with loneliness, illness, perhaps facing death. But it's not about me; it's about my willingness to be there as fully and as honestly as I can, to listen, to bear witness, and by some mysterious process, to be the vehicle through which Love manifests itself. Reflecting on these visits, it seems to me that I, too, am in the hospital bed. I am not different or separate from the patients at Pen Bay, except in the trivial sense that they are there today, and my turn is hidden somewhere in the future. But suffering finds us all, as surely as death.

So it is a privilege to me to be present to these people who share their stories, and their vulnerability, with me. I hope that my visits bless them, too.

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