By the Hand

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This week’s blog post is by IVC member Marta Hernandez Sayeed. Marta serves as a Chaplain Assistant at John H. Stroger (formerly Cook County) Hospital.


Sometimes, it is hard to believe that I am finishing my fourth year as an assistant chaplain at Stroger Hospital.  By the end of my third year, I had settled down into what I thought was a nice routine.   In the morning, I would get the list of patients to visit and I would begin walking the halls of the hospital, which had become very familiar to me. I usually began my day on the women and children’s floor. There, I visited young women and their newborns, older women who suffered ailments compatible with my age, and the pediatric ward. I shared with the patients their sufferings, their fears and, more than anything, their hopes and deep faith.  I would then go on to one of the clinical floors where I confronted the pain of disease, often a choking experience for the young and a lonely experience for the old.  But within it all, I remained within the boundaries of my own life experience.

On a daily basis, I would see young male patients in chains being guarded by armed correction offices. I felt uneasy. But, I always had a good answer for myself for not getting involved. After all, they were not on my list. I was sometimes asked if I ministered to the victims of street violence who are routinely taken to Stroger. My answer was always the same: I do not go to trauma, so I do not see them.  You see, they are not on the list. There were also the patients who came for outpatient treatments such as dialysis or infusion. In the past a retired religious sister used to visit those patients, but she left a year or so ago. I thought maybe I should restart those ministries, but again, they were not on my list…

But some surprises were waiting for me.  Our list got shorter, so I decided to expand “our market share” by restarting the ministries at the outpatient clinics. Also, after a speaker came to the monthly IVC meeting this year to talk to us about youth crime, I decided that I should make it a point to visit the Cook County jail inmates.

One day early in the morning, I was the only person in the Pastoral Office.  A call came from the Trauma Unit: a chaplain was being requested by a family who had lost a son overnight to street violence. I was frantic trying to find a proper prayer to take with me. I said a prayer so I would know what to do. I went down to the Trauma Unit, not ready for what I was about to experience.  There was a middle-aged man and two young people who in the last four hours had lost their son and brother. I forgot all I had planned to say and to do and when I went in with them to identify the body, all I could do was hug them and repeat in a very soft voice “He loves you and knows your pain.” I left the Unit feeling empty, but still confident that I had done a good job. The family was very grateful for my help.

These episodes kept coming back to me. I did not know why, until one day during Lent I read a meditation about how “He takes you by the hand.”  After a lot of reflection, I came to realize that during the last few months, I had been taken by the hand. Only that I was taken kicking and screaming. As I reflected, I came to realize that the reason for going to dialysis had very little to do with “market share.”  I was going there every Tuesday to see the same three patients to pray with them. They were always very eager to see me because they wanted to receive communion.  A small prayer group had been started from chair to chair and with some of the nurses who would occasionally join us.

Moreover, visiting the prisoners from Cook County Jail was not only a way of doing my part to help the marginalized youth. I came to realize that during my visits, I spent as much time with the corrections officers as I did with the inmates. The circumstances that they all were living and working under caused a lot of pain for all involved.  I thought I knew what was needed, but He knew better.  I also came to realize that what was needed that day in Trauma Unit  was not my counseling, the right prayer, or my chaplain skills. What was needed was a ministerial presence.  Not I, but He, knew what was needed.

If there is one thing I learned it is that if I allow Him to take me by the hand, a world of surprises will open to me.  I do not know where I am going next.  I pray in hope for the grace to allow myself to be taken by the hand.

13 Responses to “By the Hand”

  1. Tim Freeman

    Thank you for reaching out beyond your comfort zone. Fourteen years ago, my wife’s beloved aunt was part of a hospital’s outpatient cancer treatment for her final 6 months of life and was missed by the pastoral care group tending to inpatient people only. Your outreach and love to those outpatient people and those affected by violence is wonderful!

  2. Vicky R.

    Thank you Marta…you always distill the very heart of IVC into every story you tell. You are a true disciple…a companion on the journey for so many people at Stroger.

  3. Jan O'Halloran

    You know how much I respect and admire you, Marta. This reflection cements it even more! How beautiful! I love it when you said “He took you by the hand, even though you were kicking and screaming!” Isn’t that the way it sometimes goes with God’s plan for our lives? We think we know best so we resist as long as possible, but God always has a bigger plan than we could ever imagine. We have to take God by the hand and see where He leads us. Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Pat Ahern

    I recently read a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that reminded me of your beautiful reflection.

    “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.
    So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”

    Keep trusting in God and listening to the patients and their families!

  5. James Murphy SJ

    Marta, your testimony comes from the hospital, the place of suffering, broken hearts, and the miracle of hope. No wonder Pope Francis has compared the Church to a field-hospital. You’re a leader in that hospital.

  6. Lucia

    Dear Martha,
    Thank you for your sharing, a very true reality involving our volunteering journey. At the moment we realize that is not my will the one which will make miracles or change minds, but it is the placing my volunteering in God’s Hands and responding by listening we will become engage and cooperating in His will by my volunteering. Serving others in poor conditions only will enrich us if
    my ego trip changes and become Jesus’ trip. Please keep challenging us with your beautiful notes.

  7. Richard Shea

    Marta: Thanks for what you do, and for being willing to remain open for “further orders.” Presence is so important, and Listening is a great gift to others..

  8. Joseph Walsh

    Terrific story and wonderful new insight, Marta. You are helping us all to think beyond our usual boundaries and go with God. Peace, –Joe

  9. Camille Devaney

    Marta, a beautiful reflection on your experience. There is little doubt in my mind that you are the right person for this ministry, bringing love, courage and strength were there is little else. As you mentioned it is not what you say or do just that you are there where God wants you. My previous mentor at MBT, Dan Hartnett, SJ shared a prayer with me that his sister wrote when she was gravely ill. “It matters little if we are brave and courageous, or weak and afraid, all we need to do is be there where God would have us and the rest is up to Him.” That my friend sums up what you do personally and what IVC has gifted all of us to do and see. We are blessed when we touch the poor and lonely and all those, NOT on your list as we all learn to smell like sheep as Francis tells us.

  10. Susan McGowan

    Dear Marta, I just know that your warm smile and open heart are so apparent to everyone you meet. Your presence alone is a most perfect “word” for the people you see at Stroger.

  11. Donald Gimbel

    Thank you for your story. One lesson I learned from your story, among several, is to be open to God’s invitation.


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