My Church is a Mental Hospital

For thirty years, I have served as a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital. I recall the first moment that I arrived on the hospital campus, just one day after my ordination in the Christian ministry, and since that time, it has been a joy to serve in this specialized vocation. The unique challenges and benefits of this work have created many rewarding moments. In this article, I would like to discuss three areas of ministry that have grown in my chaplaincy and with each area, personal stories revealing spiritual meaning for healing in our lives.

The Power of Forgiveness. I discovered that forgiveness transcends the walls of religion and mental health issues. In other words, people intuitively know if you care about them or not.

Early in my work, I walked upstairs into the acute ward wearing my clerical collar. As I entered, a staff person requested that I speak with a certain patient. I walked over to his location and sat beside him. He noticed my collar and hesitantly asked, “You’re not going to try to convert me, are you?” I said that I had just stopped to see how he was doing. We conversed for a few minutes and then he said something I will never forget.

“I’m a Muslim,” he said. “But I have read all the holy books. The Koran, the Bible, Buddhist teachings—but there is something in ‘the teachings of Jesus’ I really liked a lot.” I asked him what teachings he meant.

He replied, “All those teachings on forgiveness! Wouldn’t this be a better world if people actually forgave each other?”

I thought, “This person struggling with mental health issues and from a different religion comprehends more about Christianity than some Christians I know!”

I believe forgiveness is a mercy that can be experienced no matter how sick we are or what we believe. Forgiveness remains a remarkable power that changes the core of our spiritual nucleus, delivering peace. Forgiveness is an amazing power for healing!

The Power of Prayer. I discovered that prayer unlocks inner strength and creativity within every person.

Throughout the years patients would come, grab me by the hand, and say, “Chaplain, pray for me!” Sometimes depression, along with desperation brimmed in their eyes or trembled on their lips. To this comment I said, “Okay, I’ll pray for you, but will you also pray for me, as well?”

At times, they wanted to know why I desired their prayers. Then, I would relate the scripture from James 5:16 (ESV), “Pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Surprisingly, no patient has turned me down. They always prayed for me. Always! So, I prayed for them and they did the same on my behalf. Many times, they articulated something like this,

“Dear, God, thank you for this chaplain who has come to my unit. I pray you will be with him as he goes from ward to ward to be with the people. Bless him and encourage him wherever he goes. . .”

In those holy occasions, I would look up and wonder, could this be the same person who had called for prayer? From where had all this passion and caring come? I believe all along, its beginning resides deep within the patient’s being. It just needed a releasethat was all.

As we know, one of the best ways to fight a depressed state of mind is to support someone else. It makes us feel better about others and ourselves. As these patients prayed for me, they discovered God moving through them, giving positive liberation from what led them to prayer. That is the power of prayer to heal!

The Power of Symbols. I discovered that we may call symbols sacraments, ordinances, or a point of contact. Your faith tradition may have a different name; nevertheless, spiritual symbols are a concrete means to reach and touch the Transcendent God.

For many years, I was a member of a society of chaplains who provided various continuing education seminars. At one meeting, a professor from a reformed Christian perspective addressed the need for God to be God and for us chaplains to not execute God’s plan. He reminded us, “We don’t heal, God heals. We do not need to make things happen, God makes them happen.” Then, he suggested this thought, which I wrote down:

“If you want to make every hospital visit a success, you need to bring these five symbols with you into the room-healing oil, holy communion, the Bible, laying on of hands and prayer. Ask the patient if they would receive these symbols of God’s presence and watch the Lord work.”

I was advised that utilizing these five scriptural symbols, people would sense that they have received ministry; therefore, I would not need to worry about my inelegant comments, but the power that these symbols represent would accomplish what was needed. Reading an open Bible, anointing with oil or grasping one’s hand in prayer surpasses anything I could achieve with my initiative. “We cannot do it. Let God bear the load of ministry!” he reiterated. Ministry is about the God who acts in human beings. For many in our profession, it takes deep courage to say, “I can’t do this myself.” The symbols unveil concrete expressions of the Lord that people touch and hold with their faith. These Bible-honored symbols are points of contact connecting us with God.

I recall one chaplain’s spiritual support group that he modestly named, “The Psalms.” His sole intention was to recite the lament psalms with whoever attended. The group never lacked an audience. In fact, patients could not wait to arrive. Additionally, they read aloud certain passages of the Bible that affected our spiritual livessuch as Psalm 23, the Lord‘s Prayer, etc. When, over the loud speaker, we announced that a service with Holy Communion was offered, more people came to these occasions than the regular worship services. As well, numerous patients desired the anointing with oil. Certainly, we have experienced this divine power whether we consciously know it or not. Symbols of faith employ the five senses to associate with spiritual convictions and draw us closer to the original faith that touched our soul. That is the power of symbols!

As a result, the power of forgiveness, prayer, and symbols operate tremendously in the hard places of ministry. Because of their divine origin, I believe they demonstrate God’s healing nature. As a chaplain in the Christian faith, we minister the life of Christ who brought wholeness to a fragmented world. These three well-known areas of ministryforgiveness, prayer, and symbolsrepresent that God is the ultimate Healer while we humbly share as the conduits of God’s wholeness in humanity. Without a doubt, hospital chaplaincy is a front row seat and privilege to watch God heal as we stand back and give him the glory!