From the Rev. Hillary B. Kimsey, Deacon and Chaplain at Swedish Hospital, Seattle:
A downtown hospital in a major city is a strange and difficult place to be when a global pandemic descends. And my role in that hospital is to be a chaplain—a listener, a companion, a representative of divine presence—to everyone who is suddenly overcome with fear. This is the time, I thought, for me and healthcare chaplains all around the world to step up! Time for us to shoulder that weight of grief and uncertainty alongside those staff and families and patients who find themselves on the frontlines as soldiers or victims or witnesses in this war against the novel coronavirus.
But it only took a few days for reality to creep up behind me and swallow me whole.
The reality of this situation is that I and my fellow chaplains have our own fear and anxiety. And after days of listening to nurses and doctors, to family members, and to patients share their fear and grief, the weight of my own emotions compounds with theirs, and suddenly, daily, I am exhausted, terrified, and heartbroken.
The reality is that for some people, the social distancing that is so crucial during these times feels like a punishment. Home may feel like a lonely prison instead of a warm embrace. Hospitals and nursing homes have become even more isolating. Places of fun and leisure like movie theaters, shops, playgrounds, parks, and restaurants have all shut down. Even our beloved houses of worship have moved online.
The reality is that while many people are sitting at home, feeling bored or wondering if they can sit through another Zoom meeting without spontaneously combusting or thinking that there is no way their kids are always this loud… other families are breaking. One person gets sick, the whole household gets infected, and sometimes, multiple people do not survive. This virus may feel invisible and far away to so many people (and I hope it stays far away from many people!), but to others, it is very, very real. And some patients with a positive COVID-19 test must face the end of their lives alone in their hospital room, as doctors and nurses and even chaplains must limit time in those rooms to help stop the spread of the virus and conserve protective equipment.
And so where is the light then, when this deep, real grief has come to call and settled in for a long visit with no end on the horizon? Some patients or their family members have asked me, in tears, “Why me? Why is this happening?” To that question, there is no good answer, so we grieve together. Other times they ask me, “Where is God?” This, my friends, is a questions worth pondering.
I admit to you that I have struggled to find the light here in this place. I admit that I have stared at the blinking cursor on my screen for some time now, wondering what I could possibly write that might offer you, or even me, some hope in these unimaginable times.
But what I firmly believe is this: God is right here with us. God is not far away; God is in the hospital rooms when lonely patients take their final breaths. God is in the hospital hallways when nurses lean against the wall to weep for a moment, take a deep breath, and return to work. God was with me in my office when I broke down after talking to a person who could lose most of their family to this virus, and God was on the other end of the line, holding that person close. God knows our pain, feels it with us, suffers with us, and loves us in the midst of all our suffering.
I see light in my fellow chaplains, as we scramble to adjust, to make our ministry creative, creating rituals and using video-chat and phone calls to visit patients and family members and help connect them to each other. I’m seeing light in my friends, who drop off toilet paper to my house, or walk my dog while my spouse and I are both working for hospitals, or send me messages of support and love when I need it most. I see light in the people of St. Bede’s where I serve as a transitional deacon; they are calling each other to check in, making sure they abide by the social distancing rules while still striving to find ways to be the church in new way!
Light breaks through, even here in the hospital, when moments of joy interrupt the suffering. Some moments of light are small, like when donated food shows up in the staff break room or a card of appreciation arrives from a patient who got well. Other moments of light are huge, like seeing entire hospital systems come together to support healthcare workers with important needs like childcare and counseling, or seeing individuals and corporations come together in remarkable ways to make protective equipment like masks and ventilators when supplies threaten to run low.
The reality of the human experience is that life and death forever dance together, that things like illness and grief are inescapable. But the other reality is that our God is Love, and love never fails, never leaves us alone. Perhaps we feel like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who in Daniel, Chapter 3, were thrown into a fiery furnace by the king they refused to worship. Perhaps we feel like we have been thrown into a fire of suffering, sickness, and fear.
And where was God, when these three were thrown into the furnace? Did God open the furnace and carry them out of the fire?
No. God appeared in the fire with them, staying near them and giving them hope to keep going, even as the flames burned around them.
The same is true at the hospital. God has not stopped the flames of this pandemic, but God is right here with us in the midst of them, staying close, loving us, and giving us the hope we need.
And so may the presence of God the Creator be with you in the flames of your suffering and give you hope. May the presence of Jesus the Son, who knows the sting of fear and wept tears of grief, be close to you. And may the presence of the Holy Spirit, who forever brings light into dark places, chase away your loneliness, surround you with love, and give you peace. Amen.