By Norris Burkes
Published June 11,2017
During this past week as a hospice chaplain, I helped orient my new replacement. My first suggestion was, “Dress for success – lose the coat and necktie.”
“Why?” he asked.
I suggested that his level of dress might be a bit overstated as we sit with people who are dying. “Our visit isn’t about who we are; it’s about who the patient is.”
“I’ve never had an employer disapprove of my necktie,” he answered.
I understood his protest, as we’d come from similar backgrounds. We were pastors in conservative congregations where the dress a suit was the uniform of the day. Parishioners expected their pastors to visit their home in dapper dress. The suit asserted our separate pastoral identity.
The new hire’s issue with our dress code reminded me of my first days as a chaplain intern at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. It was 1992 and I’d begun the chaplain training program in my three-piece suit as the pastor from First Southern Baptist Church.
The training was intense as I found myself quickly sucked into the trauma and drama of the Emergency Department. One day, an ER nurse approached me in the hallway.
“I think the man in room No. 3 could really use a chaplain.”
I promised to see the patient, certain that wisdom imparted from a well-dressed chaplain would have a healing effect. I scurried off, choosing not to notice the sarcasm embedded in the nurse’s request.
As I approached the room, I stopped the exiting orderly and asked, “What is that revulsive odor?”
“Maggots, lots of them.”
My expression told him I suspected a prank, so he offered more information.
The patient was homeless and he’d come to our ER with an infected leg laceration. He’d spent the last several nights sleeping on the ground, so maggots entered the infected wound.
I gave a noticeable cringe.
“Maggots probably saved his leg,” he said cheerfully.
“Since maggots only eat dead skin, they likely kept the infection from moving up his leg.”
I shot the orderly a repulsed look and entered the patient’s room.
The odor was intense and unforgettable. I looked the man over, head to toe. This shriveled lump of a human was malnourished, with overgrown, matted red hair. He was cooked brown from the neck up. He had gnarled toenails and fingernails with scratches that whipped around his body. The orderly had left the man’s leg propped almost eye level, enough to allow access by medical staff.
But the man also looked me up and down. It was hard for him not to see my crumpled expression. But more than that, he saw the trappings of privilege, from my tasseled loafers to my pin stripped suit and dark blue tie. My silver-plated wristwatch, Bible and oversized college ring proclaimed our overstated differences.
I introduced myself as the chaplain.
“The hell, you say!” he said, followed by expletive-laced directions that suggested my eternal destination.
I’m ashamed to admit, I was glad to go anywhere rather than remain in that room.
As the months passed, my mentors offered some interpretation of the putrid moment. They suggested that my suit told the patient I was too good to offer him comfort. And theologically, God probably saw my pretentious need for a suit as repulsive as I found the man’s maggot-infested leg.
Eventually, my training taught me to shed the trappings of Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and to assume the more approachable look of short sleeves and Dockers. Sadly, my ties took a little longer to die.
Fortunately, my replacement is a quicker study. He came to work the next day without the tie. I suspect he’ll do OK.
Read Norris’ past columns at www.thechaplain.net. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @chaplain or call (843) 608-9715