Church as Hospital

by Charissa Bradstreet, pastoral associate for formation

When I was growing up, one of my pastors used to say, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” He said this in the ’80s, at a time when consumerism was in full glory and our culture celebrated icons who had “made it” who “had it all together” and were seemingly immune from suffering, complications, or want. For this pastor, the church was a contrast society, one in which people were unashamed of their need, their suffering, and their struggles because they had found a God who embraced them as they were, and a place that supported healing and called forth expression of the gifts they had to offer. Gifts born from the knowledge of woundedness, not perfection.

I have spent the last year working part-time at Harborview Hospital, a hospital that specializes in trauma. It is not a metaphorical hospital, for in that place I sit at actual hospital beds and at tables in psych wards and talk with people who face amputations, brutal burn recovery, homelessness, a lifelong battle with schizophrenia, or a loved one who has been declared brain dead. I have been engaged in the work of learning how to hold hope in these settings. And most days I do find hope there. I have watched the mentally ill carry out the difficult work of forgiveness and grace—at speeds I rarely see elsewhere. I have seen a paralytic do the difficult work of releasing spiritual platitudes to get more real with God, and then see his legs begin to work again. And some days I sit in a stairwell and cry because of a story I’ve just heard.

My experience at Harborview has helped me recognize signs of trauma, and not just the signs of trauma that accompany disease, accidents, and homelessness. Trauma visits pretty much every person on the planet, and comparative affluence can mask the wounds that many of us carry inside. We may say, “Well, I’m hardly a Syrian refugee, or an indigenous child born with fetal alcohol syndrome, so how dare I think of my issues as trauma?” However, trauma is trauma, regardless of who it happens to or any attempt to compare and minimize harm. At least at a hospital no one pretends there isn’t a wound. If the church is a hospital, then it is also a place where we don’t pretend, a place where we actively seek the healing we need. A place where we collectively tend to internal ruptures through encounters with God, and the image of God as expressed in one another. It’s not the place we come back to after we get ourselves all better. It’s the place where we learn what better feels like by placing ourselves in contexts that support the soul’s communion with God. Sometimes it’s through spiritual practices. Sometimes it’s through service. Sometimes it’s through small groups or friendships. Sometimes it’s through respecting what science has taught us about our brains and our bodies and interrupting bad habits.

We have just completed the “resilience experiment,” which has been all about playing in that space of spiritual practice, service, connection, and science—of exploring ways in which church is more than something that happens on a Sunday morning. Being church involves making seemingly minor adjustments and discovering what God can do within contexts of exhaustion, despair, and anxiety. Presiding Bishop Curry has spoken of the “two pandemics,” the pandemic of COVID and the pandemic of racism. All of us in this church are feeling the effects of these two pandemics—these two significant traumas—consciously or not. Let us truly be a hospital for the soul. Let us be a place where we do not pretend to be perfect or become isolated, and instead let us reach together toward that which heals. Jesus spoke of a kingdom that we can experience here and now, even in the very midst of suffering. Let us be that kingdom!