As anyone who has been around awhile knows, presbytery life can sometimes be frustrating. But, in the midst of that, there is good news. It is good news that Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder is ready to share as part of her new calling to the chaplaincy at County USC Medical Center in East Los Angeles.
“I think this is really good news that people aren’t often aware of, that presbyterian churches in Southern California are working together to make sure there is a chaplain at the bedside when the poor and the marginalized are in the hospital. We Presbyterians are making sure that these folks are accompanied, that they are not alone in their time of need,” she shared.
County USC Medical Center sits at the intersection of three presbyteries – San Gabriel, Pacific, and Los Ranchos. For over 50 years the presbyteries, along with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii have made it possible for there to be a presbyterian chaplaincy at this hospital serving an often marginalized and at risk population.
“This hospital really serves the whole human family,” shared Elizabeth. “I can do visits and just going down one corridor see a man who was homeless yesterday, next door a rich man from Palos Verdes who was in a car accident and air lifted to the hospital, and next to him a woman who grew up in Pasadena.” The thing with County USC is, you never know who is going to be there. “The chance to be able to accompany them is truly a gift,” she continued. “It’s hard to find other places where there is such a broad representation of the human family – except maybe the DMV!”
But it is also a place where folks are vulnerable and often wanting to be assured that they are not alone. It is the structured role of ‘chaplain’ that makes it possible to come alongside this vast swath of humanity in such a way.
Not long ago Elizabeth was in the elevator with a woman who was clearly lost. In the course of helping the woman find the floor and the room she needed, Elizabeth learned that the woman’s son had just been shot and had taken five bullets. “Can you come pray for him?” she asked Elizabeth. Never mind that the woman was a devout catholic and the son was on a floor that was not part of Elizabeth’s assigned visits. “That woman just needed someone to show up for her son and offer a prayer,” Elizabeth shared. It was a chance meeting in the elevator. But it led to a sacred encounter to come alongside mother and son.
“To be so blinded by grief that you can’t find your way, and to be alone in that – I was glad I happened to take that elevator at that moment.”
Where does she find joy in the work that she does? Joy might sound like an odd thing to find in such a setting, but Elizabeth was ready with a response.
“By definition when folks are here it is a very difficult circumstance – but there is joy in being able to accompany someone in those moments of crisis, the moments of loss,” she shared. “It can be horrible – but even more so to face all by yourself and to have the experience of being abandoned in the midst of it.” It is a time when folks are typically more ready to give voice to what their questions are – of God or of the universe. “I am allowed to be part of their wrestling, their wondering, and can offer what I know to be true about God into those conversations.” The diagnosis doesn’t change, but there is an ability to find peace and strength in God in ways that wasn’t accessible before the conversation. For Elizabeth, it is a privilege.
It is a privilege that would not be possible without the mission giving of Los Ranchos Presbytery, and for that she is thankful.
Would you like to know more about her work, or how you might get involved? You can contact her at [email protected] to set up an appointment to visit her at County USC or invite her to come speak to your session, mission committee or other gathering.
Elizabeth will also be joining us at the September 24 Presbytery Gathering during both Open Space hours if you’d like to come learn more about her work and our shared work through her.