1 of 2
Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Hospice patient Charles Potter Jr., 86, receives a visit from chaplain resident Catherine Toronto at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City.

Charles Potter Jr. lies in hospice, his breathing labored, when chaplain resident Ruth Zollinger gently places her hand on his shoulder and greets him.

"Last time, we prayed for you," she says softly. She strokes his forehead. "Everyone's here to support you."

At the window, chaplain resident Catherine Toronto asks the 86-year-old man's daughter, Tammy Wilkerson, how she and Zollinger might serve her.

Wilkerson says the family's doing OK. But after 15 days in the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center following her dad's heart attack, the Lapoint, Uintah County, mother misses home. She misses work. She shares a photograph of her dad from days long past. She doesn't want him to die alone.

"Did it help to have a prayer last time we were here?" Toronto asks.

Wilkerson, whose father is not religious, pauses. "Well," she says, "it helps me."

That's what the chaplains are hoping for.

On Thursday, 13 chaplains graduated from the Clinical Pastoral Education program at the Veterans Affairs' Salt Lake City Health Care System. The VA program, which began last September, is conducted through the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.

Graduates represent a range of faiths: Protestant, Buddhist, Mormon. One is a Roman Catholic priest. A handful of the graduates already have received national certification, and several others are working on it, said chaplain Mark Allison, training supervisor.

"My job is to build interfaith chaplains that can serve in any environment, anywhere...to bring hope and compassion, and aid in (the) healing process," Allison said. "Doctors and nurses care for broken bones and body systems but not the broken heart, not a troubled relationship, not for grief and bereavement that have precipitated emotional problems. That's what the chaplains do."

Chaplains don't preach, but they do pray with patients and families who want to. The chaplains seek out a person who can pray in the family's faith tradition, if the family prefers that.

At the VA hospital, chaplain residents walk from room to room, introducing themselves to patients and asking if they would like to visit.

"We're not missionaries, we're not proselytizers, we're not social workers," says Toronto, who, like Zollinger, has about six months of study left in the program. "We facilitate spirituality, not religion."

The chaplains strive to offer a listening ear, kindness and service. Not all patients want to share. But some patients who send chaplains away call them back.

Eugene Slade, an Army chaplain at Dugway Proving Ground who graduated from the chaplains' program Thursday, recalls a Marine commanding him back into his hospital room.

The man, in his 80s, told Slade that his last interaction with a chaplain was when he saw one pray at the makeshift burial of scores of soldiers killed at Guadalcanal in World War II.

The man was gruff at first in talking to Slade but eventually softened to tell about his life. Later, he turned his back and cried as Slade offered a prayer of thanks for his and other Marines' sacrifices.

"It was an honor to be a part of his journey," Slade told graduates, referring to the chaplains' program. "Words can't describe the impact of this year on my life."

The chaplains' work in the program is perhaps as emotional as the ones who share. The training requires chaplains to put their own troubles on the table and work through them so they can better help others. They call themselves wounded healers, after the book "The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society," by Henri J. M. Nouwen.

"The hard part is the heart work," Allison told the graduates Thursday. "Chaplains, heal yourself before you can reach out and heal others."

Program participants also learn about ministry in intensive care, spirituality in medicine, post-traumatic stress, ministry to the abused, victimized and traumatized, ministry in a secular environment, professional boundaries, confidentiality issues, grief and the fellowship of suffering.

Sue Bergin became a chaplain after working as a journalist, a BYU professor and bereavement counselor. She now works in hospice care and already has received national certification. Her mother, Marian Bergin, says she's never seen her daughter so happy.

"I get to use my whole being," chaplain Bergin said of her work. "You use your whole self, and who you are, and what you have become."


E-mail: [email protected]s.com