When somebody has been shot, especially if they're shot in the chest, the process is very physically aggressive. It's not uncommon for the person to be opened up so they can reach in and clamp off what's bleeding. It's visually powerful, and once you've seen it, it never leaves your head.
A memory that will always last and doesn't go away. In some ways being a trauma chaplain is more like being a street paramedic or a police officer. They remember everything. Soldiers remember everything. And often we remember everything here.
I think that sometimes I get worried that I'm going to get numb to it, and I haven't. I try to take care of myself emotionally and spiritually. I try to take time in the silence. I try to spend time outside. This job can hurt your soul. Not just your heart and your body. It can feel like something's being yanked out of you physically. And that's how I've experienced it. My prayer is always make me softer… make me gentle, change me if you must, so I can keep going.
I think that's part of what has to happen. You cannot do this work and be the same person. You just can't. You end up being different too. Once you've been shot by somebody, you're always somebody who's been shot. Once you've been changed by this work, you're changed permanently, and you don't get to go back. I don't get to go back to the person I was before being a chaplain.
Sometimes people drift out of a lane on the interstate. They don't mean to, but they drift out of a lane, and they cause an accident. Sometimes people don't wear their bike helmet when they're riding a bike, and they hit a rock on the trail, and they go down. Those are unintentional. But when somebody picks up a gun, somebody's doing it on purpose. Somebody means to cause harm to somebody else. It means that in their heart, in their soul, harming another was something they felt like they could do… wanted to do.
When I think of an epidemic, I think of something like a flu outbreak, where the disease is actually passed from person to person. Gun violence is an epidemic… in that gun violence becomes normalized, and becomes something that's more likely to happen. It's something that people see, and because they see it, it becomes normal to them, and so it's okay for it to happen. It's also an epidemic because an infectious disease passes from one person to the next. The impact of gun violence passes from victim to family to community to church. I mean once it starts, you literally can't stop the ripples.
There was one day in the last few years where we had three people try to commit suicide by a handgun, and they all arrived within about two hours. That's gun violence too. That was the only time I thought maybe I should stop doing this. Then I thought back to what I knew about suicide, and I knew that people who commit suicide successfully or who try are often in great pain for years on end, and that they've suffered in that. I thought to myself, “Well, I'm just joining them in that suffering,” and that's what made it possible to keep going; That they were hurting, and I'm now hurting too.
I can remember one particular case where we didn't think a patient was going to make it. She was rushed up to the operating room, and somehow the surgeons saved her life. The surgeons couldn't believe that what they tried had worked. I said to one of them, “I am thankful for the people that taught you.” When it works, it's because there are these layers of people who have been doing this work for so long, and I am merely one person. There are some moments that are redemptive, where I feel that this is why I'm here. This is why I'm part of it.
Lots of people who are not like me, who are not white males, are more likely to be victims of gun violence. The truth is that it's white men who created gun violence on brown bodies in this country for too long. They did it to African people, they did it to Native American people… and it is something that we've never owned. We've never told the truth. We did this to each other.
We've done this to God's children. Until we own that, and we tell the truth about who has done violence to who with guns in this country, we can never stop it. We have to own it first. To tell the truth about it. And I do not think that most people who look like me are ready for that. I think that's what scares me the most, is that they're not willing to take a long hard look at themselves.
The very first time I wrote a poem as a chaplain was when I was working by myself at night on call. I was the only chaplain in the building, and I had seen a great deal in about six hours. I was on the verge of tears. I just opened up my personal Gmail account and just started writing. I didn't even mean to write a poem. It just kind of came out.
A Lament for a Second Son
By whatever name they call you,
I beg you to hear the words of an unexpected witness.
The members of this neighborhood are back,
two years later.
In the same place. The same reason.
A second son, another gun,
another head shot, another organ donation,
another funeral to plan.
I call upon you to send them word
as if anything you would say would make sense today.
I think that they have become like wooden idols,
who the prophets taught their ancestors to reject.
Unable to hear or speak.
Maybe you can hold your word
until their tears have subsided,
as their own cries are all they receive today.
As for words of praise, my heart has forgotten them
and my mouth will not form them.
If you have called me to serve as a psalmist,
I am not so sure that I want the job.