On Valjean Wykstras to-do list one day last week was visiting a man with advancing Alzheimers 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.
Im wondering how youre doing today, says Wykstra, 53, a student in Lutherans 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 Moores 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 barbers daughter – his barber happened to be the late John Nuckols, Fort Waynes 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. Theyve been married for 22 years.
Shed 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
Thats the way it goes many times in the daily visits of Lutherans 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 programs 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.
Its a very supervised ministry, says Holman, a Roman Catholic layperson certified in hospital chaplaincy.
The Rev. Victor Kolch, Lutherans director of pastoral care, says the chaplains-in-training dont 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 thats 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 hospitals 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 its 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 theyre 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 dont 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 Lutherans 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 wouldnt 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, were kind of like EMTs. We get people when theyre in crisis and were not going to see them very long. My personal opinion about what theyre going through is not very important at all, he added.
I think its important to affirm people, so that whatever they have to give them strength is strengthened.