Hospital Chaplaincy: A Ministry of Awareness
"Those who come to the hospital do not leave any part of themselves at home--they come with body, mind, and spirit," observes La Freeda Thomas (MACL '08), Director of Chaplain Services at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California.
Thomas came to her current vocation through the "back door," she recounts, having first worked for 16 years as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse). Then, after completing the Clinical Pastoral Education training program at the University of California, Davis, she began coordinating the spiritual care efforts in the hospital. Sensing the need for more practical theological training to support her work, she enrolled at the Fuller Northern California regional campus--and, after graduating in 2008, took on her current position at Feather River Hospital.
Through her experience in the clinical and spiritual care of patients, Thomas has found that awareness is the key to her ministry. "Many things are happening with a patient besides the diagnosis," she says: Individuals will come in for a common reason, such as a knee surgery, but end up talking with Thomas about deeper aspects of their lives. "They tell me about children they haven't seen in years or a spouse that just died," she explains. "They are sitting there thinking about the challenges of life and their heartache." In these situations, for Thomas and her team of chaplains, awareness takes the shape of assessing the patient's ability to cope with his or her present challenges.
When Thomas first started in health ministry through parish nursing--a specialized form of nursing that focuses on promoting health in faith communities--she began to see denominational differences as "precious distinctions in the body of Christ." Today, the people Thomas encounters in her ministry come from a wide variety of spiritual backgrounds, and she credits Fuller as a place of ecumenical diversity that nurtured her sensitivity to her patients' religious traditions. "When I sat in class and really listened to the theological roots of my peers, I had a deeper understanding of how my patients approach God," she shares. When praying with them, Thomas is aware of factors such as the posture, ritual, and language she is using so that, she says, "God is held in the highest esteem in their mind, and they can feel comfortable asking God for grace and healing."
Although she has had many meaningful encounters with patients, Thomas is quick to point out that in her experience, "It's not like the movies. I find that most people die the way they live." She stays realistic about the likelihood of a devout person switching faiths when faced with death. When she does have the opportunity to see people accept Christ, Thomas is humble about the part she plays in that decision. "I learned that there have been people before me who have planted and watered and cultivated that seed--the Christian at the grocery store register and the tax accountant, as well as the missionary and the preacher behind the pulpit."
Despite the challenges of her ministry, Thomas starts each day with a hopeful attitude. "I get up in the morning and thank God for the gift that he will tuck away in the day," she shares. "I go to work expecting the gift, and it comes from the most varied people and circumstances." Thomas's favorite "gift" is when she has the opportunity to serve communion to a person "who has been a prodigal for years," and in doing so, helps reunite that person with the body of Christ. "They want to come home and are not sure if God will accept them," she reflects, "and I have the privilege of sharing that God has never stopped loving them."
Thomas sees her vocation as just one way a Christian can live in awareness of the Holy Spirit, and encourages others to exercise the same awareness in their vocations. "Chaplains are ready to be available at all times, and aware of the subtle nuances that come through in a person's spirit that say, 'I need God, I need more,'" she explains. "I think there is a chaplain in all of us."
Feather River Hospital is one of 19 hospitals in the Adventist Health Corporate chain, with the mission "To share God's love by providing physical, mental and spiritual healing." Feather River was the recipient of the California Gold Award for Performance Excellence in 2008. For more information about the hospital, visit their website (www.frhosp.org).