You ought to go as a student missionary.” The voice was that of my campus pastor at the La Sierra campus of Loma […]
Published on: 04-01-2019
You ought to go as a student missionary.”
The voice was that of my campus pastor at the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University, but the suggestion seemed totally crazy. I did not want to be a student missionary; I wanted to stay in California and finish my education. Why would I want to leave my friends and go away to a strange place?
“Bella Vista Hospital,” Pastor Dave said, “needs a chaplain for a year. Would you like to go home?”
My father had been the administrator at Bella Vista Hospital while I was in elementary school. I had made many friends, fallen in love with Puerto Rico, and spent hundreds of hours chasing butterflies in the thick bamboo jungle. “Going home” was a great idea. For all the wrong reasons.
* * *
I began to dream, called my parents, and turned in a student missions’ application. Three months later I was flying from San Diego, California, to Miami, Florida, and on to San Juan and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Twenty-one years old. Eager and foolish.
My first day on the job Chaplain Fred Hernández greeted me warmly and led me upstairs to the maternity ward.
“This is the perfect place to start as a chaplain,” Fred told me as we bounded up the stairs.
In the first room we met a very happy mother and father and their three children. We joined them in admiring the new baby, said a brief prayer, shook hands, and left.
That’s when Chaplain Fred glanced at his watch, blanched, and said, “Dick, I forgot that I have to be at a TV station in downtown Mayagüez in 20 minutes. I have to leave right now. You did fine in the first room. I’m really glad you’re here!”
I was on my own—a student missionary chaplain who was training to be a minister but who didn’t know anything about being a chaplain.
The next door opened to a very sad 15-year-old unwed mother who was putting her baby up for adoption. I prayed in English and bolted from the room.
Downstairs I slipped onto the medical floor, looking for an “easy” patient. The woman I chose looked deep into my soul and asked, “Young man, can you pray in Spanish?”
“No,” I responded, terrified to have been caught pretending to be what I was not.
“Siéntate!” she said.
I sat, listened, and learned how to pray simple prayers in broken Spanish.
* * *
During the next weeks I visited many patients with Chaplain Hernández and began feeling comfortable “listening” in patient rooms. Slowly, very slowly, I began to feel a bit like a chaplain.
One afternoon I was called to meet with the Rodríguez family in the cancer ward. Grandma Rodríguez had been in the hospital for some time, and it looked as if she might pass away on that day.
I tightened the knot in my thin black tie, put on my blue chaplain’s jacket, gathered my thick Spanish Bible, and bounded down the stairs to first floor. She was just one more patient visit before supper, and I was eager to be off duty.
Mrs. Rodríguez was in a four-bed ward, in the bed beside a large window that looked out onto a hospital garden. I slipped around the privacy curtain and looked into eight expectant faces.
My world stood still. Each person searched my soul for hope and encouragement, for a glint of spiritual strength that would make it easier for them to let Grandma go.
Their hopes revealed the empty desert of my soul.
I was a student missionary chaplain. I was training to be a pastor. I knew enough Spanish to sound wise. I knew enough about God to get along. But these people wanted more than just words. They wanted to feel God’s embrace through me. And I had nothing to give.
I wanted to run, to escape the piercing eyes and the smell of death, to get away from this place where my powerless faith was so boldly revealed.
Desperate, I collapsed to my knees, grabbed Grandma’s hands, and prayed.
“God, forgive me. I have nothing to give. Help me!”
Then I dashed from the room, ran out the hospital’s front door, past the giant mango tree, through the hospital laundry, and far back into a nearby banana plantation, to a good crying spot with soft wet grass.
I had destroyed everything. I had let God down. I had shown everyone that my Christianity was only a facade. Worst of all, I had let the Rodríguez family down when they had needed me the most. They would tell Dr. Angell, and he had probably already packed my bags and purchased a ticket for me to fly home.
I had been proud; now I was humiliated. Broken.
Later, after much confessing and pleading with God, I shuffled back to the hospital. I remember everything from that walk. The fruit rotting beneath the trees. The bright red and green poinsettia bushes. The mud-stained concrete steps where thousands of families had marched into the hospital to find hope.
My head hung low. I tried to be invisible.
Dr. Angell met me at the front door, grabbed my shoulders, and demanded to know what had happened in that room.
“What did you say to those people?”
I broke down, told him exactly what had happened, and begged forgiveness. Before he could answer, we were interrupted by the Rodríguez family as they poured out onto the hospital steps. They all hugged me and said 1,000 things I did not understand.
When they left, it was only Dr. Angell and me.
“Dick, did you pray in English or in Spanish?” he kindly asked.
“English,” I whispered.
“That’s not what they said. They praised God for the wonderful compassionate prayer you prayed. The words were just perfect so they could let Grandma go. They thanked God for the prayer you prayed in perfect Spanish.”
Dr. Angell went back inside the hospital, and I sat alone on the red-dirt-stained steps, thanking God for sending me as a student missionary.