The first time I broke bread as a Chaplain

I guess the first sign that God was calling me to be a Chaplain was that I had lunch with Jesus on my first day of work. I was late in getting my applications in so I had to get my first unit of CPE (Chaplaincy Internship) through the back door. I had found a class to attend in Brooklyn, but I had to find my own field site/hospital to work at. The only place that I could find on such short notice was a VA. Hospital in The Bronx which was literally on the other side of the city. The only thing I knew about the chaplain I was going to interview with was that some vandals had stolen the bell from his church, and in the news article I googled, he was quoted as saying “there is a special place in hell for people like that.” As I went for my job interview there, I had little hope, and even less experience. My strategy was to use my disability as a wedge to get me in as a novelty. I am blind and I figured that a Veteran’s Hospital would have its fair share of “Wounded Warriors,” who might benefit from my experience as a successful disabled person.
I got off the bus with that nervous confidence that I always feel when entering a new place. I felt as cool cucumber, if that cucumber had been sweltering in the summer son for a few days. My insides were mush and though I tried to look calm and purposeful on the outside, I knew I was sweating. I had directions and found the elevators without a hitch, but once I was on the second floor I was lost. As a visually impaired person I have to press my face up really close to the doors in order to read the room numbers, but at the same time I was terrified that if one of my future colleagues saw me doing this there first impression of me would be that I was some kind of strange guy with a door licking fetish.
I didn’t quite know what to do, but persisted forward as if I knew exactly what I was doing. Then when I thought no-one was around, I leaned in for a quick “glance” at one of the doors.
Suddenly, a gruff voice rang out. “Hey, you need any help!?” I jerked my head from the door and froze. A man had come around the corner and was slowly walking towards me with the aid of a walking stick. He was thin but muscly and looked to be in his late fifties, but his hair was covered by a New York Mets Baseball cap.
I knew I had been caught so I just gave in to the situation and told him that I was looking for the Chaplains office. He was friendly enough and showed me the way. I introduced myself as Paul and he held out his hand and said with a big grin, “Call me Jesus! Nice to meet you!”
I wasn’t sure what to make of this at first, but being a sensitive member of our multi-cultural society I quickly realized he must be Hispanic. “Oh you mean Hesus,” I replied in an attempt to put him at ease and show that I was familiar with his lingo.
“Nope,” he said, “Everyone calls me Jesus,” and I realized that I was the one who wasn’t at ease.
However, I didn’t have much time to reflect on this because the chaplain’s office was just around the corner. I straightened my tie, pulled my shoulders back, and put on the most confident face I could manage.  As Jesus knocked, the door swung open with his touch and before I could say anything my helpful companion said, “This is Paul, he got a little lost on the way here, but I found him and he says he wants to be a chaplain.” My confidence dropped lower than my shoulders as the chaplain looked up from his seat. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to have paid much attention to Jesus’ introduction because he was on the phone. The chaplain acknowledged my presence, but curtly told me he was busy and he would see me in about an hour.
By this time I didn’t know whether I was happy or sad, excited, bemused, nervous, or upset. As the door shut one word flashed in my mind, “Disaster!” Discomforted and disoriented I now had nothing to do but wait around in this strange hospital for another hour. Doing what? Licking door knobs, wandering the halls? Sitting outside his door getting more nervous by the minute? I was flustered and I had completely for gotten about my new friend Jesus, but he had heard and seen everything that was going on. He turned to me and said, “Well looks like you got some time on your hands, would you like to come down to the cafeteria with me and have lunch?”
“What?” I was stunned, “Of course!” I replied. My heart leaped. Jesus had a great idea. He explained that he was a volunteer at the hospital and he had free lunch passes. So he gave me a brief tour of the hospital that ended with us sitting together over a couple burgers and fries.
Before we ate Jesus asked me to pray over the food. Praying in front of, or for, people is something I was always uncomfortable with, but this time the prayer came out as easy as breathing. It was a short and simple blessing that thanked God for the day, the food, and my new friend.
We enjoyed our lunch and I had my first pastoral conversation as a Chaplain. Jesus told me about the hospital and about his work as a volunteer, but he also told me about his service in Vietnam and the suffering of his fellow veterans. He told me about the stresses of being in the military that never left even when his service was over. He told me about the people that had helped him, and how he wanted to help others. Nothing to dramatic happened as we shared stories of sadness and stories of joy. I can’t say we cried together, though we did share a few laughs. By the end I had learned a lot about the kinds of people I would be ministering to in the next few months and my nervousness had almost completely disappeared. I returned to the chaplain’s office with a smile on my lips and a knowledge in my heart that this was where I was supposed to be.
I broke bread with Jesus on the first day of my career as a chaplain and I have never been the same since.