September 3, 2023
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Last May, The New Yorker ran a short article by Nick Paumgarten about the “Hidden Chaplains” program at Princeton University. It’s an idea that an undergraduate named Kyle Berlin came up with in 2018 in conversation with my colleague Matt Weiner, one of the Deans of Religious Life over in Murray Dodge Hall. “Hidden Chaplains” are staff members on campus who bring moments of joy, kindness, and care into a high-pressure academic community that can often grind people down.
One of the celebrated Hidden Chaplains is Catalina Maldonado-Lopez, a member of the dining services team who cheers up stressed-out students in her dining hall as she swipes their meal cards. Another Hidden Chaplain recognized at this year’s banquet is Keith Upshur.
Keith is a custodian who keeps Murray Dodge Hall running, but he also talks about life and faith with students who come for Jummah prayers on Friday afternoon. Berlin describes Hidden Chaplains as people at Princeton who offer “quietly glorious acts of caring.”
Kyle and Dean Matt’s concept of “hidden chaplains” gets at something I’ve seen in my own work as a pastor. During the summer before my second year of seminary, I interned as a chaplain at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. A few weeks in, I was the only chaplain on the overnight shift, which meant that any call that came in was for me. My pager went off around midnight, and the call came from the surgery wing.
At the nurses’ station, the charge nurse explained that a patient was getting increasingly belligerent toward his care team, and she wanted to know if I would visit him.
As I started down the hall toward the patient’s room, I felt unsteady and out of my depth. Two custodians were mopping the floor between the nurses’ station and the patient’s room. One of the women whispered to me, “Come here, baby. It’s bad in there. We’re going to pray for you.” She and her fellow custodian put their hands on my shoulder. She began to pray for me, for the nurses offering care, for the patient in that room, for everybody involved in the work of this hospital.
Before every shift at St. Vincent, I put on a white lab coat with the word “Chaplain” stitched above the breast pocket. Standing there in the surgery wing hallway at midnight, I felt as if these two women had clothed me with prayer. I felt equipped with new confidence to go into that room using all the tools I was learning to offer pastoral care to a distressed patient. As I walked out toward the nurses’ station to check in almost an hour later, the two custodians who prayed with me were down the hallway. They gave me a brief nod and then turned back to their work.
Fifteen years later, those two women on the surgery floor of St. Vincent Hospital come to mind whenever I read Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world.” Without drawing attention to themselves, they anchored that surgery department in prayer and love. It did not matter if you were a seasoned physician, a stressed out nurse, a difficult patient, a terrified chaplain intern, or a grieving family member. These women understood that they had a job to do as followers of Jesus making sure that every person was lifted up to God. They were hidden chaplains, offering, as Kyle Berlin said, “quietly glorious acts of caring.”
The conviction that everyone has something meaningful to contribute to God’s redemptive work in the world can be found in the teachings of Jesus. Our Scripture reading from Matthew for this morning is from a section called the Sermon on the Mount. It’s Jesus’ first in-depth teaching to his disciples and the crowds that have sought out his ministry of healing.
When Jesus tells everyone gathered around him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is doing something new. The work of justice and kindness is not the exclusive purview of religious experts or powerful insiders; it’s something everyone can participate in. Jesus’ message is for fishermen like Andrew and Peter, James and John. It’s for people who are ill and seeking healing, as well as the caregivers who have brought them to see Jesus.
When Jesus speaks to them, it’s with a plural “you.” Y’all matter to God, so to speak. All of you have a role to play in God’s promised healing of the world.
Jesus tells his listeners that they are as essential to God’s unfolding story of Good News as salt is to a meal or a shining lamp is to a house full of people. Jesus’ declaration that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” is not a finished or complete description. It’s the beginning of an invitation to us—to all of us—to imagine what it means to participate in making the world around us more welcoming, more humane, more just. We grow in this imagination when we learn how to see and hear God’s work through us and our neighbors.
This summer, Len and I were on our first sabbatical after serving seven years with Princeton Presbyterians and Nassau. Thanks to a generous grant from the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Pensions, we were able to travel to Scotland and spend a few days on the island called Iona. Before taking a train to the western islands, we picked up a book at a shop in Edinburgh that caught my eye with its title: Imagine a Country: Ideas for a Better Future.
Paging through the introduction, I learned that the editors, Val McDermid and Jo Sharp, an author and a journalist, respectively, gathered together short essays in 2019 from a wide spectrum of Scottish society to share their ideas about what could make their country better. The rules were simple. Keep the essay brief, only 800 words. No politicians, since they get to share their ideas with the public enough. And finally, offer a vision that is hopeful.
I flipped back to the front page, and the epigraph was a quotation from a Scottish poet named Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
The book is filled with the hopes and dreams of about eighty contributors from all walks of Scottish life. There’s an essay from a novelist lifting up the importance of elder care. A television writer imagines an openly queer prime minister of an independent Scotland as a model of tolerance and celebration. Some visions are by university students who are already encouraging young people to vote, and environmentalists working on responsible reforestation of the Highlands.
There are pleas for funding to teach young people Arabic and Chinese, not only to thrive abroad but to acknowledge new neighbors in their communities. There are visions of small villages welcoming immigrants and refugees with warmth, and artists who aspire to put an instrument in the hands of every child in school. One of my favorites was a cartoon from a standup comedian with the caption: “Free soup every Friday made by a granny” above a sweet old lady with curly hair and glasses holding an enormous steaming pot of stew.
Imagine a Country gets at the spirit behind Jesus’ emphasis on each person being a part of God’s story: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Each one of us has a role to play, a hope to share, a dream of flourishing to work toward. Reading each essay reminds me that the work of making our world better is something that cannot be undertaken alone.
What if each of us were to take the prompt from Imagine a Country and reframe it as Imagine a Church? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is interpreting and sometimes reinterpreting his tradition to help us imagine how to live into a life with God that is deeper and more expansive than we can imagine. If you could pick one thing that would make Christian community and our neighborhoods more just, more humane, more loving, what would it be? Is it grounded in something you’re already doing?
In Princeton Presbyterians, the campus ministry I serve, we talk a lot about the Taizé Community, an ecumenical monastery in France that welcomes young people all over the world. Their founder, Brother Roger, once wrote, “Everyone bears within themselves a great inner theme. Let it sing out, again and again. No use looking elsewhere. From it is born a continual creation.”
Maybe you, too, will find a creative way to be a hidden chaplain for someone this year. God has given each one of you some great inner theme to share in simple ways. Let it sing out on a hospital hallway with a friend who’s sick, or in your dormitory with a suitemate who’s having a hard semester, by Nassau’s playground door when you volunteer with Arm in Arm. Whatever it is, we need what God has given you to share with the world. Your gifts are as essential to our life together as salt and light.
 Nick Paumgarten, “Dept. of Kindness: Princeton’s Hidden Chaplains,” The New Yorker, May 22, 2023. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/05/29/princetons-hidden-chaplains#:~:text=“Hidden%20chaplain”%3A%20this%2C,quietly%20glorious%20acts%20of%20caring.”