My cell phone rang, and the caller-ID showed a local number that I did not recognize. I must have been in the mood for sport because I answered it anyway. “This is Evan,” I said, making no attempt to mask my expectation that I would soon regret it. But I didn’t. “This is the hospital switchboard,” the voice said, identifying herself. “A nurse has asked to speak with the chaplain, and you’re on call this week.”
Not long after I moved here, I volunteered as an after-hours chaplain for our local hospital. Along with thirty or so other ministers, I agreed to take one night a month in the event that a patient or member of staff requested a pastoral visit when the full-time hospital chaplain was off-duty. In four years, I was only called twice. Recently, however, our hospital has stopped using a staff chaplain, and the volunteers have been asked to take a week at a time—day and night—in case someone needs a clergy visit. Not expecting many calls, I was happy to help.
The switchboard operator connected me to the nurse who had requested the visit. She explained that the patient was facing some tough decisions and seemed particularly vulnerable. She had asked the patient if she would like a minister to come to her room and talk and pray with her, and, when the patient said yes, she made the call. I thanked her and told her that I would be there in a few minutes.
On the drive across town, I allowed my mind to rehearse how the bedside visit might go. I knew only the scantest details, and I practiced various scenarios—some serious, others comical—to help prepare myself for the encounter. I imagined how I might explain my clerical collar to a Christian from a denomination where the clergy do not wear a particular outfit designating their vocation. I considered what I would say to her if she told me that she wasn’t a Christian but wanted to become a follower of Jesus before she died. Remembering some of the strangest moments from my time in seminary, I pretended that she might have had a psychotic break, chuckling at the bizarre possibilities that could be waiting for me. Returning to reality, I pondered what I would say if she told me that she was afraid of dying.
Although I frequently get the chance to spend time with parishioners in their moments of great vulnerability and need, I don’t often have the opportunity to spend that time with strangers. I walked into the room and met a delightful woman who was facing some difficult circumstances. Usually, my hospital visits last three to five minutes, but this one lasted most of an hour. She told me about her family and the deaths that they have experienced over the last five years—a sibling, both parents, and a son. She told me about her church and the new pastor who had buried those family members but, other than that, whom she had not really had the chance to get to know. She told me how she had always been the strong one who held things together for her family and friends, and she admitted in a roundabout way that her reality was quickly changing. I gently asked her about the next few weeks and months that lay ahead of her, and I offered some words of comfort and encouragement. And then I left.
I don’t remember her name. I doubt she remembers mine. Most of my pastoral relationships last for years. As a parish clergyperson, I have the privilege of celebrating births and watching children grow up and rejoicing at their weddings and seeing people in the primes of their lives and walking with them as they age and, eventually, saying goodbye to them when they die. That doesn’t happen all at once, but, in a parish, it happens all the time—an ongoing cycle of life that all of us share. But an hour with a stranger whom I will almost certainly never see again is no less special or authentic than a lifetime spent with people whom I love. Even a one-time, never-repeated bedside encounter is an opportunity for sharing a love and concern and care that lasts.
Love is a powerful thing. We love our parents and siblings and spouses and children. We love our teachers and neighbors and friends. But will we love a stranger? On the drive to the hospital, I rehearsed several different scenarios, but I never considered that I might fall in love with the woman I met. It does not matter that I do not know her. God has made a space in my heart for her, and I still hold her in prayer. Whom might you love today? Whom will you allow into your heart?
This post originally appeared in The View, the weekly newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, please click here.