When people enter a hospital many are suddenly faced with issues of loss and grief for the first time in their lives, creating anxiety and distress in addition to their physical illnesses. Their clothes are taken away and they lose their dignity. Because they cannot work they face the loss of income and financial stability. Because their bodies are not functioning properly, they face the loss of control. Depending on the severity of their illness, some are facing their mortality.

Chaplains are present because the hospital embraces a holistic approach to healing. Northeast Georgia Medical Center embraces that we are more than just physical beings. People in crisis need attention to their mind, body and spirit. Not only are the chaplains present for the patients, but they are present for the patient’s families and also for the hospital staff.

When a trained chaplain listens to people’s stories, comes along beside them, gets under their burdens and walks with them, the healing process is enhanced. Patients feel that some of their control is restored. The hospital staff feels supported and encouraged. When prayers are offered and received, a mysterious power other than medicine is introduced and received, and God’s presence is felt.

A more clinical side to chaplaincy at the hospital is the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. CPE brings theological students and ministers of all faiths into a supervised encounter with persons in crisis. These students and ministers develop new insights into themselves through their ministry as they minister to patients and hospital staff. They frame their work theologically and receive feedback from their peers and the CPE supervisor, which further helps them enhance their effectiveness as ministers.

For several years the CPE program at Northeast Georgia Medical Center has been directed by Dr. Jasper Keith. To understand the value of CPE for both the patient and the chaplain, you need to know some of Jap’s story.

Jap Keith began working as a chaplain at a psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia over forty years ago. Jap went there with sharp intellect, a rising star in the field of pastoral care. However, severely mentally ill people are not impressed by your intellect or your resume. Normal patterns of relating to people don’t work in psychiatric wards. It can be a dark place to work because people are held captive by mental illnesses which they cannot explain nor escape. Yet some are in touch with just enough reality to ask troubling questions. It is a great temptation and sometimes a misconception that a chaplain’s job is to give answers to life’s difficult questions about God, life, and human suffering.

As a young chaplain, Jap Keith was prepared to give some answers, even to a person with a mental illness. He had his Soul Winner’s New Testament with its four-point plan of salvation in his shirt pocket. He welcomed an opportunity to use it because he was confident and well schooled. If Jesus could cast demons from a crazy man who lived among the tombs, surely God’s word had power to work within such a setting as a psychiatric hospital.

Jap didn’t have to wait long. A little old woman stepped out of a room and asked him a simple question: “Does God love me?” The question was plain, coherent, and rational. She had asked the question to the right person, the chaplain. That was a question Jap was ready to answer. As Chaplain Keith reached into his shirt pocket for his Soul Winner’s New Testament, the woman said, “Preacher, don’t pull the book on me. Maybe God loves me and maybe he don’t. What I really want to know is do you love me?”

The crazy thing about psychiatric hospitals is how a patient can suddenly go from being the patient to being the teacher. This question was not a question that Jap could find in the Good Book. It required an answer from somewhere within his soul that he had not searched. The question rattled him. He realized he did not have an answer for the woman.

To his credit, he was honest enough with himself to admit that he had not arrived at the psychiatric hospital because he loved the people there. Instead, he arrived there because he needed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education and these people were his ticket to achieving his ministerial goal. He was there to work, but that didn’t mean he had to love his work, which was the people.

Martin Buber was a German philosophy professor of the early twentieth century. One day a young student came to see him deeply concerned about a draft notice he had received to serve in the German army during World War I. A pacifist by nature, the young man was afraid of being killed in battle. At the same time he had a deep love for his country. He didn’t like the thought of someone else dying in his place, either. He didn’t know what to do so he went to Buber for help.

The young man caught Buber at a bad time. He was working through a difficult theological “philosophical problem and was annoyed by the young man’s claim on his time. He said something along the lines of, “That’s a serious dilemma; do what you think is right.” The conversation was brief and the young man left.

It wasn’t long afterwards that Buber received word that the young man had committed suicide. Buber was drenched in guilt. He wondered if the young man’s fate would have been different if he had responded differently to him. He realized that he had treated the young man as an object, not as a subject, i.e., not as a person of worth, not as someone who deserved his time and attention.

The experience led Buber to think about how people typically relate to one another. He concluded that we relate to other people either in an “I-Thou” or in an “I-It” relationship. In an “I-It” relationship, we treat other people as objects. We are primarily concerned with how we can use them to meet our needs. Their needs or issues are of no concern to us.

In an “I-Thou” relationship we see people as subjects, as people who have worth and value, and we look for opportunities to be used by God to minister to them and meet their needs.

This was the fundamental issue that confronted Jap Keith in the woman’s question, “Do you love me?” Were the people of that psychiatric hospital mere objects, or were they people of worth?

Jap found the answer to his question in the back ward of the psychiatric facility. Having some knowledge of Jap’s internal struggles, his wise supervisors assigned him to one of the most challenging areas of the hospital, which proved to be a fertile teaching ground. The back ward housed male chronic schizophrenics, organic brain syndrome patients, and men in catatonic stupors.

The picture of psychiatric hospitals over forty years ago isn’t pleasant. All these men were placed into a morning room about twenty by twenty-five feet in size. A television blared all day. Rarely did any of the men keep themselves clothed. Most were incontinent. Jap felt he had been thrown into a snake pit.

For six months this room was his mission field. These people were his parishioners. Each day Jap opened the door to the room as a big burly attendant pushed men back inside. He went inside and sat down on an iron bench. For the first three months Jap sat on the iron bench for an hour a day. Then the time grew beyond an hour as he felt more comfortable observing the behavior of the men in the room.

One day as he sat on the bench the words of the little old woman came back to him in a still, small voice: “Does God love me? Do you love me?” “Was this the voice of the Holy Spirit?” Jap wondered. In that dark place, Jap also heard another question, “What in the world are you doing here?”

On another day when Jap went into the room there was a man on the iron bench. Jap sat down beside him and the man got up and walked away. Every day for many days, the two of them played that game.

One day when the man stood up, Chaplain Keith stood up and said, “Sir, I’m Jap Keith. I’m the chaplain here. Who are you?” The man didn’t even respond. That went on for a few days, but Jap continued to introduce himself and continued to ask the man his name.

On one occasion Jap went into the room and the man had on a pair of pants. He was sitting on the bench. Again Jap looked at him and said, “I am Chaplain Keith; who are you?” This time the man pushed him to the door and out of the door as if to say, “You don’t belong here.”

Not deterred, Chaplain Keith went back several times after that and sat on that bench, but now the man would come over and sit down beside him. That’s when Jap was able to answer the question that he believed was posed by the Holy Spirit: “What are you doing here?”

“I am learning how to love because I care,” he decided. And with that, he was also able to answer the question of the little old woman: “Do you love me?”

It was there in a psychiatric hospital that mentally ill patients gave Jasper Keith a wonderful gift. They taught him that they too were people of worth and therefore worth loving.

The unclothed man eventually clothed himself because of Jap’s ministry, which provides a powerful metaphor for our own ministry. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “Clothe (yourselves) with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14 NIV).

Jap’s ministry clothed the demon demoniac. He didn’t do it with words from the Good Book, though those words are “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV). Instead, he embodied the Good Book. We do that each time we treat people as people of worth and value, regardless of their ethnic group, religion, economic bracket, belief system, or intellect, and we look for opportunities to be used by God to minister to them.

In the back ward of that psychiatric hospital, Jap Keith found his purpose for life, a purpose that has guided him for nearly half a century of ministry to be a faithful witness of the God of suffering and to anguish with people because he loves them.

Jasper Keith’s story from his younger years demonstrates that the process of CPE can be equally empowering and healing for the chaplain. Within the process of supervision, chaplains gain great insight into their own lives as they intersect with those who are suffering, experiencing great loss, and grieving. Chaplains discover that the patient often becomes the teacher and that the more one learns about himself/herself, the more he/she can be free to listen to the patient’s story and be a non-anxious presence.

Chaplains grow personally when they meet themselves in others who are experiencing times of crisis and work through their own issues of loss and grief with the help of their peers and supervisor. This frees them to become fully present for others and open to the voice of God and to the changes God wants to bring to their lives.

The people of Northeast Georgia are fortunate to have such a strong program dedicated to ministering to people of all faiths, ethnicities, economic brackets, and walks of life as they seek to improve the health of everyone who comes their way.