In the years I served as a hospital chaplain, I was often asked, “Why don’t you use your position to tell people about Jesus?” 

The question is much like the one I’m still asked as a syndicated columnist: “Why don’t you use your writing to tell people about Jesus?” 


The first question assumes that chaplains represent Christianity and should use their position to surreptitiously evangelize patients.

The second question assumes that a Christian who writes a spiritual column for secular newspapers should use his writings to espouse Christian teachings. 


But neither assumption is true.

That’s because hospital chaplains, like spiritual columnists, don’t “represent” a single belief.


Chaplains don’t wear the hat of a pastor, rabbi or even a guru. That’s because once you’re inside a hospital, it doesn’t matter what you are.


What matters to the chaplain is who you are. 

In the hospital, like in this column, I try to help people get in touch with the spiritual component in their lives. I affirm the personal beliefs of the patient because when people are sick or dying, they tend to look toward their own healing rituals for comfort. 


And while I believe that Jesus is my friend — and even theirs — I don’t believe patients should hear that proclamation from a stranger.

While serving as a hospital chaplain, who happens to be a Christian, I did some unorthodox things at the request of patients that might make some Christians uncomfortable.

For instance, I’ve taped crystals to their wrists, turned their bed eastward, read the Bible, read the Koran, spread a healing blanket on their bed and placed garlic under their bed. I’ve collected bones to be burned and placentas to be buried.

I did these things because those patients deserved my respect, not because I personally share their beliefs.

When I’ve shown proper respect for people’s beliefs, I was sometimes honored with questions about my beliefs. 

On one such occasion, I met a cancer patient who told me that he wasn’t even sure he believed in God.

“That’s fine,” I joked. “I’m in customer service, not sales.” 

He liked that retort, and we established a common ground for our visits over the next several weeks.

One day, in the grips of his illness, he fired multiple spiritual questions, which I answered in rapid succession. 

Yes, there is a God; yes, God is loving; yes, God wants an up-close relationship with you.

He then asked how he could talk to God.

“Talking to God is just like talking to me,” I said. “Just say what you feel.” 

He wondered aloud if God would consider him a hypocrite for waiting until his dying days to pray.

It was then he asked me to do something I’ve never done before or since. “Say the words for me.”

Like I said, I’ve done some fairly unorthodox things, but nobody had ever asked me to lip-sync their prayers — very unorthodox. 

“OK,” I agreed, “but if I pray something you don’t agree with, squeeze my hand to indicate you want a do-over.” 

As he reached for my hand, I told God that my friend wanted to know him. I told God that the man sought forgiveness and wholeness and was asking for God to be present in his life. 

It was a prayer I will never forget. It was a prayer that never would have happened if it hadn’t started with respect. 

Is there someone you want to share your faith with? If so, ask yourself how that sharing might look if it starts with respect. Dare to hear their story before blurting into yours.

The result will, I hope, surprise you.

Syndicated columnist Chaplain Norris Burkes began his chaplain career with both the active-duty Air Force and the Air National Guard until his retirement in 2014. He later served as a board-certified healthcare chaplain at Sutter Memorial, Kaiser, Methodist and Mather VA hospitals and continues to work with area Hospice. His column is syndicated to more than 35 accredited news outlets. Read past columns at