Wondering about risk

By Joy Caires

As a pediatric chaplain I saw people of all faiths pour all of their being into the attempt to save a child’s life, again and again–regardless of any differences we may have had. The Orthodox Jewish family anticipating their baby’s heart surgery; the lesbian couple seeking baptism for the infant they knew would not survive much beyond birth; the Hindi family I led in prayer as we gathered barefoot at their adult son’s bedside; the Jehovah’s Witnesses watching their son’s last breath leave his body; the evangelical fundamentalist father expressing concern over his son’s obsession with Heaven; the teenager I baptized who’s grandmother had left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy-desperate in their need they welcomed my presence. They didn’t question whether I was “eligible” to pray for them, bring the sacraments to them, or love them. They clung to me like a life boat and I in turn held steady at their grasp. As they watched their children struggle their relief at the presence of the priest was often palpable. In that moment all they cared about was the fact that a child, their child, was dying and that I was there.

Now that said, the relationship was primarily one way. I had something they needed, I wore a collar, and they were in crisis. So, no personal questions were asked of me-and I rarely volunteered information about myself. Occasionally in the quiet moments, or as the relationship grew I would answer their questions while still dodging the inevitable “so are you married?”s with an answer of “yes” and a quick follow up question. They would keep talking and I would keep listening–their question answered but not answered–and I would feel relief at my preservation of the pastoral relationship. Yes, I often found myself wondering, did my duplicity help or hinder my ministry? If they knew about my sexuality would they still call me to anoint their dying child? Would they still ask for me if they knew that part of my familiarity and comfort in the medical setting came from having met my beloved while she was still in medical school and learning the language of medicine second hand?

And, I wonder, and part of my wondering is the knowledge that many of these families want the pastoral relationship to continue beyond the bounds of the hospital. They want to visit me at my parish; they invite me to birthday parties for children that made it despite it all. They, gasp, want to friend me on Facebook so that they can share photos taken of me with their children! How much do I let them into my life now that their crisis is over? Would knowing more about me harm their memory of the relationship I had with them in the hospital?

As a chaplain it was about them–and after the crisis I got to walk away. There was little risk of rejection and I knew with surety that what I did was crucial. In the parish I find that getting the bulletin proofread does not strike me as a crisis (at all) but that it is its own kind of ministry. I find the parish world to be a different kind of challenge-with greater personal risk. Because, now, as a parish priest I find that it is usually about us, as a congregation, as a gathered community. These are people who share the journey with me-they know my spouse, in sermons I share with them some of my story as we embark on the journey of faith together. It seems odd at times to have so many know so much about my life. But, at the same time, I can see the difference it makes to the people who make up the congregation to have these insights into my life and love.

So, I wonder…what would have been different if I’d let patients and parents in a bit further, if I’d answered instead of evaded? And, as these relationships settle firmly into the past, I wonder whose loss it has been?

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy’s first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Past Posts