On Valjean Wykstra’s to-do list one day last week was visiting a man with advancing Alzheimer’s disease and his wife, children with cancer and Jerry Moore Jr. of Fort Wayne, who was being checked out for heart problems.
By 9:45 a.m., Moore was sitting up in bed at Lutheran Hospital and happy to get a visit.
I’m wondering how you’re doing today, says Wykstra, 53, a student in Lutheran’s Clinical Pastoral Education program.
Great, Moore says. The service has been beautiful, and the people – the nurses and everybody– have been beautiful.
And you have this beautiful lady right here, Wykstra says, motioning to a nearby chair where Moore’s wife, Carol, is sitting.
And with that, the 78-year-old school custodian launches into the story about how he met his wife in the 1940s. She was his barber’s daughter – his barber happened to be the late John Nuckols, Fort Wayne’s first black city councilman – and he used to carry her books home after school.
They went their separate ways, married other people, divorced, and met up again more than two decades ago when she invited him to visit her in California. They’ve been married for 22 years.
She’d been my heart ever since 1949, Moore says.
Good for you. That is such a cool story, Wykstra, formerly an emergency medical services worker says with a delighted smile. Thanks for sharing that with me.
Later, Wykstra asks if she could offer a prayer, and the couple agree.
Heavenly Father, I just raise this couple up to you in this morning hour and thank you for what you are doing in their lives, Wykstra says. We ask that you give them peace and comfort.
Reminder of God
That’s the way it goes many times in the daily visits of Lutheran’s corps of student chaplains, a lesser-known part of the many services the hospital offers
Just last month, those enrolled in the program visited 1,900 patients and offered spiritual support.
And, countless others have been touched by the training about 700 graduates from around the region have received during the 27 years of the program’s existence.
Nationally accredited, the program is the only one of its type in northeast Indiana, hospital officials say.
Currently, 10 people are serving in unpaid internships or year-round, full-time paid residencies. Students can be ordained ministers, seminary students or lay people. Although all the current students are Christian, the program accepts people from all faiths.
Program manager Jeff Holman says the biggest part of chaplaincy training is learning by doing.
Although students take classes, they also amass 400 hours ministering directly to patients. They document what they say and do during visits and share it with supervisors and their peers to sharpen their insight and techniques.
It’s a very supervised ministry, says Holman, a Roman Catholic layperson certified in hospital chaplaincy.
The Rev. Victor Kolch, Lutheran’s director of pastoral care, says the chaplains-in-training don’t get involved in medical matters.
Chaplains do not cross the boundary into any medical suggestions, he explains. They might say, Have you mentioned that to your doctor or a nurse?’ but that’s as far as they would go.
Nor do chaplains pass on information, except under certain circumstances, he says.
People trained in the program often go on to professional health-care ministry in hospitals or other kinds of care facilities, such as nursing homes, he says, while others work in prisons or other agencies.
Still others go on to use their skills in congregational work.
But Holman says the hospital’s student chaplains never try to convert people or recruit them for a particular church. They are trained to know they are often seeing people at their most vulnerable and not to exploit it.
A lot of times, patients tell us it’s the worst day of their lives the day they come here, he says. We say we try to be like God and meet people where they’re at.
Instead, Holman says, hospital chaplains try to help people discern meaning in terms of their current circumstances – what is the meaning of their illness and how does that fit in to their own faith tradition or understanding of God.
They are taught to ask questions and let the patient come to his or her own understanding.
There are times when people feel forsaken, and they don’t have the vocabulary or the means in their spirituality to express or understand that, Holman says.
In those cases, he says, chaplains can serve as reminder of God or of a love and care for them beyond what they can immediately see.
Alan Terlep, 40, an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, says sometimes chaplaincy conversations can turn serious.
He entered Lutheran’s program after his wife, Kate, also ordained, was called to ministry by North Christian Church in Fort Wayne.
Previous congregation members, he said, told him what they appreciated most about his ministry was his visits in the hospital.
While on rounds last week, Terlep visited a young man with a chronic illness that would likely require repeated medical interventions for him to stay alive.
But the man was facing the situation with profound faith, Terlep says.
The man told Terlep he hoped he wouldn’t need the medical care, but if he did, he had accepted that it was what God wanted for his life.
Terlep pointed out that Jesus had prayed a similar prayer when facing crucifixion. Later, the student chaplain said he was spiritually strengthened by the conversation.
The way he was able to communicate his very strong belief in miracles without turning it into God is going to jump in and fix all my problems,’ that he turned it (his situation) into something healthy, was very important to me, Terlep says.
In chaplaincy, we’re kind of like EMTs. We get people when they’re in crisis and we’re not going to see them very long. My personal opinion about what they’re going through is not very important at all, he added.
I think it’s important to affirm people, so that whatever they have to give them strength is strengthened.