On a recent weekday afternoon, the University of Utah Hospital's chaplain walked quickly through the halls, headed for the newborn intensive care unit. The parents of a terminally ill baby wanted Susan Roberts to be with them.
Later that night, a reporter asked Roberts if she had a hard day. "Actually not so bad," she said.
In the morning she had been asked to say a prayer of blessing at an adoption. "So that was cool." And yes, in the afternoon, she helped the family of a baby who was about to die. But this is the nature of the work she chose, she explained. When you work in a hospital, you work with crises.
You are there for death but also for healing, she said. You have the joy of seeing patients recover and leave.
Roberts talks about pastors in terms of gifts. Some pastors have a gift for ministering to an entire parish, she says. Others have a gift for teaching. Roberts long has felt called to hospitals.
She said her preference might have something to do with the fact that she was born with a heart defect. She was in the hospital often and had open heart surgery at the age of 5. She thought about death more than most children do.
Roberts was born in Elgin, Ill., and grew up in San Francisco. Early in her life, she wanted to minister, she said. But when she went off to college in Boston, she ended up majoring in early childhood development. She went back to San Francisco and worked with children as a puppet therapist.
She kept on thinking about how nicely the ministry would blend with child development, and so in 2000 she enrolled in the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (the Episcopal Seminary of the West) in Berkeley, Calif. As she worked on her master's degree, her bishop recommended she begin a process of discernment. Roberts met with another person who was becoming an Episcopal priest and learned of the possibilities in pastoring. In the end, she did a one-year residency in clinical pastoral education at a nearby medical center.
After graduation, she was a chaplain at that center and at the same time trained other chaplaincy students. Last spring she decided to move to Salt Lake City. "I moved here for a relationship," she explained. She learned of the job at the U. hospital and was hired last fall.
When patients check into the hospital they are asked their religious preference. And later, a social worker may ask if they would like a visit from a chaplain. Then too, there are signs throughout the hospital offering her services.
Not that Roberts necessarily waits to be asked. She spends hours each day walking the halls, popping into patients' rooms and introducing herself, asking if she can be of any support or comfort.
A branch president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also conducts services and visits patients. Then, too, there are several Catholic priests, deacons and lay leaders who visit.
Roberts acts as a liaison among all the faiths. Even if patients are visited by their own religious leaders, Roberts may find herself filling in. "They don't have the same kind of time I do." She can sit with a family for an entire afternoon. Her background in child development comes in handy when there are children to be entertained.
These days, she's the hospital's only chaplain, constantly on call. Now and again she does have to work on weekends, she said. Sometimes she gets called at night.
Eventually, Roberts plans to start a volunteer program, finding a group of chaplains on whom she can call. She also would like to teach chaplaincy students again.
But first, always, her job is to sit and pray with patients and families. Roberts said, "It is a true privilege to be invited into that space."
She recalls a family she worked with in California. The mother was dying, and Roberts spent many hours at her bedside, singing to her. The woman was so peaceful that Roberts called her "one of my greatest teachers in life."She taught me about love and about the spirit. And after she died, I thanked her daughters." Roberts told them, "I didn't have to be here, but you chose me, so thank you."