Forging Connections in Crisis: A Hospital Chaplain Confides About Her Calling

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Portia Saint-Jacques is the newest chaplain serving at Loma Linda University Health in Loma Linda, California. Here she talks about what it is like to work in a hospital setting, when she felt God’s calling, and why she remains an Adventist despite her disappointment in the San Antonio vote.

Question: You are a chaplain at Loma Linda University Health. Can you briefly describe a typical day at work for you?

Answer: I enter the sacred space of an individual’s journey in life for a few moments.  Whether in an emergency room trauma bay, a pre-operative waiting room, an inpatient bedside, or an outpatient group, I am honored to be an intimate stranger with those celebrating, processing, or grieving.

What do you love the most about your job? 

I love the opportunity to go from strangers to friends with people in mere moments because on one’s worst day one desires comfort and support with no time, gender, age, or religious preference.  The human empathetic connection is an unspoken need when we are in crisis; therefore, my uniqueness as a chaplain who happens to be an African-American, millennial female is a complement to the presence I bring while in God’s presence.

What do you find the most difficult or challenging thing?

Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are, hearing their trauma stories, and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.

There is a fairly large team of Loma Linda chaplains. Do you feel very supported in your job? It must be nice to be able to confer with colleagues and get support in difficult situations. What are the other chaplains like to work with?

Yes, Loma Linda University Health has a huge fleet of chaplains, Catholic priests and clinical pastoral education students.  I feel very supported by my director and my fellow chaplain colleagues, especially since I am currently the only female staff chaplain.  The other chaplains represent diversity in ethnicity, education, age, and skill set.

This is not your first chaplain job. How is Loma Linda different to work for than your previous employers? How is working for an Adventist institution any different — or is it?

Loma Linda University Health proudly ascribes to being a Seventh-day Adventist institution, and from orientation onward, LLUH has exclaimed its pride in the Sabbath, being a global health institute and furthering the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.  

I have worked at faith-based and government hospitals in the past, and I have learned a great deal from each setting.  One faith-based hospital, St. Jude Medical Center, believes that every encounter is a sacred encounter; that is something that I will continue to live out while I work at LLUH.  

The Adventist culture here is quite evident and overt and is a known growth-edge for inclusion for those of other faiths or those who identify as non-religious/spiritual as LLUH lives out its mission and vision.

You earned your undergraduate degree from Oakwood University in 2009 and your Master's from Andrews University in 2012. Why did you decide to study theology and become a chaplain?

When I was 10 years old, my parents encouraged me to pray and ask God what I should be in life.  I remember thinking to myself, “God does not talk to children.”  I decided one night (as my dad was watching a Redskins game) to go in my bedroom, kneel by my bed, and pray.  I remember praying, with no expectancy: “God, what do you want me to do with my life?”  And for the first time I heard the Holy Spirit say to me, “I want you to speak for Me.”  Startled, surprised, and shocked, I ran to the kitchen and told my dad what had just occurred.  He looked at me confused and said, “Really?! Okay . . . you sure?”  

I immediately got scared and proceeded to try to block out this experience, but when I was 17 and at Loma Linda for its Minority Introduction Into the Health Sciences (MITHS) program, I began hearing that still, small voice speaking to me again.  

I had come to Loma Linda University to gain inspiration to become a cardiologist here one day, but now that dream has come to fruition in a different way as I am a spiritual cardiologist.  I reintroduce people to themselves and often back to the divine so that He will transform the whole person.

I believe your father is a minister? Did he inspire you? Was he supportive of your career choice?

My father both inspires me and is very supportive of my career choice.  He created space for me preach, teach, and grow as he ministered to the various churches in his career.  He is still encouraging me to reach greater heights as I serve at Loma Linda University Health.

Can you describe an especially memorable situation that you have dealt with in your work as a chaplain?

When you work in healthcare, you have the opportunity to touch your community in life-changing ways as you represent the divine.  For example, I recall supporting a gentleman who sustained a work injury.  I escorted his supervisor and best friend from the Emergency Department to the operating room and provided support, nurture, ministry of presence, and comfort measures (e.g. water/snacks).  

The two reunited following surgery, and I extended my support during the hospitalization.  The next time I saw the two of them was in a furniture store that they owned in the local community.  It was a sacred moment to be fully present with them again, celebrate the traumatic work injury, and express gratitude of the God-moment we experienced as I bought a queen mattress.  

Moments like these happen to me often as “my church” has no walls — just people that God allows me to speak to on His behalf.

How do you find the strength to deal with extremely sad and tragic situations, as you must, in your work?

Ongoing self-care: individual counseling, small group involvement, massage therapy, weekly worship, exercise, traveling, and recharging with family and friends.

Are you ordained, or would you like to be?

I would like to be ordained, but before that day, I would like to have a commissioning service. I received my credentials in the mail, but I look forward to having a commissioning service as I serve God and mankind.

How did you feel when the vote went against the ordination of women at San Antonio's GC in 2015? 

I no longer wanted to be a Seventh-day Adventist after the vote. I felt being a commissioned, licensed, ecclesiastically endorsed chaplain was less than being ordained.  I felt I was partaking in voluntary oppression.  

If that is how you felt, why do you remain an Adventist today?

I sought community with other Jesus followers (e.g. Messianic Jews), but I realized that I need not change my denomination; rather my gaze.  Every denomination and faith group has its man-made (no pun intended) issues, so I should focus on the Saviour and what He has called me to do.  I have worked earnestly to become a board-certified, endorsed, commissioned pastor who serves as a chaplain, and I will not allow a vote to derail my impact on those at Loma Linda and the world.

What advice would you have for young women who hope to study theology and pursue a career as a chaplain?  

Follow God’s calling, and He will guide you on where to specialize in ministry. I began my journey considering to serve as a parish, local church pastor, but with my clinical skillset and personality, I thrive as a pastor who specializes in healthcare chaplaincy.

Image courtesy of Portia Saint-Jacques

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