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SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital chaplain Emma Grace Johnson, right, talked with Cardinal Glennon patient Anna Tate on March 6 at the hospital in St. Louis. Emma Grace, who is also the youth minister at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, said that while it can be tough, there is also a beauty being with patients in the hardest parts of their lives.
SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital chaplain Emma Grace Johnson, right, talked with Cardinal Glennon patient Anna Tate on March 6 at the hospital in St. Louis. Emma Grace, who is also the youth minister at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish, said that while it can be tough, there is also a beauty being with patients in the hardest parts of their lives.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Bringing God’s love to the hard moments

Cardinal Glennon chaplain draws on ministry experience to support patients, families

As the youth minister at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in St. Louis, Emma Grace Johnson has plenty of experience with teenagers.

“I have learned to be able to sit and listen to teens talk for hours,” she said.

That’s come in handy in her role as chaplain at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, where she is part of the pastoral care team that offers spiritual support to patients and families during emergencies and hospital stays.

Emma Grace was introduced to hospital chaplaincy last summer to fulfill her clinical pastoral education requirements at Aquinas Institute of Theology as she worked toward a Master of Divinity degree. Although her background is with teens, she loved spending time with children and adults, playing games and having heartfelt conversations, so she continued as a part-time chaplain in the fall.

“It’s really hard to do. It’s hard to be here and see a lot of the terrible things that happen,” she said. “But it’s also so beautiful to sit with these people and be with them in the hardest parts of their lives and show them God’s love in those moments, and let them know that God is still with them, even in the lowest of the lows.”

Emma Grace starts her days at Cardinal Glennon by checking with the night chaplain coming off duty. (Chaplains are available at the hospital 24 hours a day.) She leads prayer over the hospital intercom, something short and sweet to help bring a minute of calm and reflection into the never-ending busyness of patients and staff.

SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital chaplain Emma Grace Johnson, right, talked with Cardinal Glennon patient Jamila Hardwick, 7, of Belleville, Illinois, as Jamila played with a teddy bear on March 6.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
Then, she hits the floors, visiting patients and their families in their rooms to offer whatever support she can. When requested, she also prays with patients before surgeries and responds to trauma situations alongside hospital social workers.

Sometimes, if parents aren’t with their child at the moment for whatever reason, “I’ll just go in and play with the kid,” she said. “That’s a way of showing God’s presence, just showing them they are loved and cared for. So let’s play UNO. That’s pastoral care — and that’s something I had to learn. That is caring for people and offering Christ’s presence, just being present and showing them love.”

Her youth ministry experience helps her relate well to teenage patients, she said. At Cardinal Glennon, she sees many teens who are being treated for mental health reasons. “The patients come in with so much baggage; they have so much to share. And most of the time, they need someone to share it with,” she said. “I think those visits are really meaningful and important for the teenage patients, to know that they are seen and heard, and that somebody cares.”

In turn, the hospital ministry informs her youth ministry. “The mental health crisis that we are experiencing in our country is immense and terrible. And I knew that, but being here, it’s right in my face,” she said. “And it’s pushed me to push my teens to have those conversations and check in on them more. I see the face of my (youth ministry) teens in every teen I see here at Cardinal Glennon.”

She’s the only Catholic chaplain on staff, which has allowed her to share Catholic traditions and teachings with other chaplaincy team members, she said. She lectors at Mass, which is offered four days a week in the chapel. On Ash Wednesday, she helped distribute ashes. She brings Communion to patients who are unable to leave their rooms to attend Mass or staff members who can’t make it to the chapel.

She also baptizes patients in emergencies. “In those moments, it’s very critical, where we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s so meaningful to families to know that their child has been baptized. To be able to do that is one of the most meaningful pastoral care interventions I’ve been able to do.”

Amid the suffering that comes with having children in the hospital, Emma Grace sees Christ’s love through the families she encounters. She recalled a family whose infant daughter, born with Down syndrome, was in the middle of a long hospital stay due to several health complications.

“The parents never left her side, and were just the kindest, most welcoming people. They said, ‘We’re going to be with her every step of the way,’” she said. “And the brother was so excited, he picked out her Halloween costume and would read her books. She was intubated and sedated, so she probably couldn’t hear or see these things, but they just loved her so much, they wanted her to hear their voice.”

“The hope that I find is in the healing, and in the ministry we do,” she said. “Every time we discharge a patient, it’s a joy, and you have to do a little happy dance and cheer. They don’t cancel out (the hard times), but remembering the victories and uniting that suffering with Christ…I can offer them over to the Lord.”

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