It never was a good day when I was called for the death of a baby in the Sacramento, Calif., hospital where I worked as the chaplain for women and children.
But it was a doubly bad day in 2006 as I responded to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where two families had lost their children.
One child was Muslim and the other Christian.
The Muslim child had arrived in this world in the driveway of our emergency room three days earlier. The Christian child had emerged 10 weeks premature with a lung problem.
Now, they were both leaving their new world on the same day.
Once in the NICU, I was directed to the glass room that housed both families who stood just far enough apart to guarantee privacy issues. The Muslim family sought comfort from their religious leader, the imam. Close by, the Christian family stood waiting for me to baptize their child.
I stood in reverence within the sacred space as the staff carefully disconnected the babies from life support machines. Both children were wrapped in homemade blankets and placed into the arms of their mothers, who sat in rocking chairs exchanging knowing looks.
At that point, the usually noisy NICU fell silent in readiness for the emergency blessings of both children.
Unceremoniously, I opened a bottle of sterile water and placed a drop on the baby’s forehead asking God to “bless this child in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” With that, the Christian mother dropped her face into her palms and released sobbing words though her hands.
Nearby, the Muslim parents read aloud the prayers of Mohammad from the Koran. The Muslim mother released her grief in much the same way as the Christian mother, through her hands.
In the next few hours, I watched our child-life specialists make inked footprints and handprints and present them to the parents as mementos. The prints of the two children looked very much the same and illustrated the eternal path they would walk hand in hand.
While our social worker and I juggled family visits, the child-life workers bathed and clothed the babies.
While the families were dressed a bit differently, both expressed the same grief. I saw both mothers cry. I saw both fathers cry.
Both families grieved the loss of tremendous potential. They equally grieved their children’s lost childhood, a future soul mate and their child’s potential to make a difference to the world.
Each child was equally created and loved by God. They were born the same and they died the same.
It’s often said that death is the great common denominator, but that would sorely miss the picture painted that day in the NICU.
I think birth is the greatest common denominator. Birth is the point at which we all begin the same. The problem comes somewhere between birth and death, when we exaggerate our differences to claim that our nation, our skin color, our religion or our political party makes us better than others.
Whenever I’m tempted with this kind of exaggerated comparison, I hum an old Sunday school song in remembrance of these babies. While a bit politically incorrect, this Christian song expresses a sentiment celebrated in most world religions.
“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write [email protected] or visit thechaplain.net. You also can follow him on Twitter, username is “chaplain,” or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.