This week’s blog post by Ignatian Volunteer Marta Hernandez Sayeed was originally published in IVC Chicago’s Footprints blog.
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 officers. 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.
Marta Hernandez Sayeed has been an Ignatian Volunteer for 8 years, of which she has spent 4 years at Stroger Hospital, the public hospital for Chicago and its surrounding areas. The mission of the hospital is to serve whoever comes to its door.