By Norris Burkes
Posted Jun 18, 2017

In 1991, I put on my first hospital chaplain badge. My supervisor took one look at me and said, “You’ll need to remove your Christian cross.” The cross was a half-inch silver accouterment that I’d transferred from my Air Force uniform onto my ID badge.

The stunning request came from Chaplain Tim Little. He was my supervisor in a 12-month on-the-job training at UC Davis Medical Center called Clinical Pastoral Education.

I countered Little’s request by explaining that the symbol would help me communicate my Christian identity to patients.

“What if the patient isn’t a Christian?” he asked. “What if he’s an atheist? What if she’s Wiccan or Rastafarian?”

I hadn’t thought of that. Nor did I have a clue what those last two things were.

Still, I pushed back. I contended that hospital employees were permitted to attach sentimental pins to their badges. “And besides,” I said, “This smacks of political correctness at the expense of my Christian rights.”

“OK,” he said. “Leave it on for now and we’ll see how it goes.”

It didn’t take long to “see.”

A few weeks later, I walked into the room of an 80-year-old patient. I had said only my name when he noticed the cross on my badge.

“Get out!” he ordered. “I’m an atheist. I don’t need a chaplain!”

Suddenly, I got Little’s drift. I was being dismissed with no opportunity to explain the man behind the cross. No occasion was given to me to be human. He’d judged me solely on the basis of my shiny cross.

I stood my ground while unclipping my badge and slipping it into my shirt pocket.

His face wrinkled with suspicion. Then with a thin smile and the briefest of words, I asked him for a do-over.

“What if we get rid of the chaplain?” I asked. “I’ll just be Norris.”

He paused, just long enough for me to interject, “I see you’re hurting today. Can I stay a few minutes to hear what’s going on with you?”

The man glanced at the pocket where I’d disposed of my parochial symbol and turned a softening face toward me.

“Sure, OK,” he said tentatively. He pointed to the guest chair where I would sit visiting with him for the next half hour.

What was it that won the man over?

I hope it was my willingness to see from his point of view and remove the obstacles between us. The sentiment is best expressed in the paraphrased words of the Apostle Paul in “The Message” version of the Bible:

“Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized — whoever.”

However, Paul adds, “I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view” 1 Corinthians 9:19.

I can’t say for sure that the Apostle Paul would have followed my actions. However, if he were living today, I suspect that, like me, he’d be willing to strip down to his boxers if it meant having the opportunity to share faith, forgiveness and comfort with someone who is hurting.

The patient invited me back for two more visits — without me having to strip to boxers. Too bad. That would have made a really good column.

Read Norris’ past columns at Write him at Twitter @chaplain or call 843-608-9715.