Untie Me

Fancy dress doesn’t work in this job

By Norris Burkes
May 2022

I’m hoping whoever reads this is looking for a job, specifically a hospice chaplain position.

I currently hold the title, but am eager for my employer to hire a replacement so I can retire—again.

The right candidate must be an approachable and caring person, unlike the man I interviewed some years ago. He arrived wearing a suit and became offended when I told him our hospice chaplains leave their clergy trappings at home.

“Why?” he asked.

“That level of dress can be a bit overstated when you sit with dying people. This job can’t be about maintaining your pastoral appearance. It has to be about who the patient is.”

“I’ve never had an employer disapprove of my neckties,” he answered.

I understood his protest, as we’d come from similar backgrounds. I too had once pastored a conservative congregation where the business suit was the uniform of the day.

My padre dress became a problem during my first days as a chaplain intern at UC Davis Medical Center in 1992. The training quickly intensified as I found myself sucked into the trauma and drama of the emergency department.

One day, an ER nurse approached me in the hallway and said, “I think the man in room No. 3 could really use a chaplain.”

Did I detect sarcasm in the request? No, I thought as I scurried off to see the patient. Hopefully the wisdom imparted from a well-dressed chaplain would bring a healing effect.

As I approached the room, I stopped the exiting orderly and asked, “What is that repulsive odor?”

“Maggots, lots of them.”

My expression told him I suspected a prank, so he offered more information.

“Our patient is a homeless man who arrived with an infected leg laceration. He spent the last several nights sleeping on the ground, so maggots entered the infected wound.”

I cringed.

“Maggots probably saved his leg,” he said cheerfully.

“How’s that?”

“Since maggots only eat dead skin, they likely kept the infection from moving up his leg.”

I shot the orderly a repulsed look as I 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 and covered with overgrown matted red hair. He was cooked brown from the neck up.

I stared at the poor man’s gnarled toenails and fingernails, noticing particularly the scratches that whipped around his body.

The patient returned my gaze and 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 pinstripe suit and dark blue tie.

My silver-plated wristwatch, Bible and oversized college ring proclaimed our overstated differences.

“I’m Chaplain Burkes,” I said. No first names when you’re trying to keep that pastoral distance.

“The hell, you say!” He continued with expletive-laced directions that suggested I turn around and go to a fiery eternal destination.

I’m ashamed to admit, I was glad to go anywhere rather than remain in that room.

Anywhere, that is, except into the path of the smirking nurse who sent me there.

She offered counsel to the newbie chaplain intern.

“You might want to lose the suit,” she said.

“Why,” I asked.

“I’m guessing that our patient probably considered your suit as repulsive as you found his maggot-infested leg.”

Eventually, her mentorship taught me to shed the trappings of Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and don the more approachable short sleeves and Dockers. Sadly, my neckties took a little longer to die.

In the meantime, we are still looking for a fulltime chaplain at Hospice of the Foothills in Grass Valley. Requirements are posted on indeed.com. Suits need not apply.

Norris Burkes can be reached at comment@thechaplain.net. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.

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