Totally Legal

Prayer hands

by Robert Lanz, LCSW

In the sixties, like a lot of guys my age I did some things just to prove I wasn’t part of the establishment. Hardly shocking I guess. One of those things was to gleefully follow the Reverend Kirby Hensley into the Universal Life Church. This wasn’t actually a church in the physical sense but it did meet the newly changed requirements for an established religion and virtually anyone, due to that new found freedom of religion, could sign up to be a reverend in the church. All you had to do was send a donation of twenty bucks up to Modesto and in a couple of weeks you would receive a certificate attesting that you had met the legal requirements to be a minister in the Universal Life Church and as such you could do all the things that any legally ordained minister could do.

You could have your own church or charity. You could perform weddings, give last rites, provide spiritual counseling and get involved in any number of religious chores. It was kind of a goof really and most of us never gave any thought to actually doing any of those things. Oh, I did perform a wedding in a bar at a ski resort in Utah in 1979. Totally legal.

I got found out one night in the ER when a father died and his two daughters were there at the moment of death and they decided to dig back into their youth and pull forward some religion in their moment of crisis. With no connection to any church they expected we could call the local parish and a good hearted priest who had never heard of them would gladly bound out of a nice warm rectory into a very cold night, break out his good book and help transport another soul to the other side. Yeah, sure. Pardon my cynicism but believe it or not, priests are human too and some of them actually feel no moral obligation to a person outside their parish or someone they don’t know or maybe they don’t even have a connection with the night shift staff that would nudge them into coming over on that cold and rainy night just because a social worker was calling for help.

That situation was so common it wasn’t even shocking any more to have to tell a family member that a priest was not available at three in the morning. That’s when they both broke into tears. Deep guilty bottom of the soul tears. Not the gentle weeping usually coming with the death of a loved one, but the deep wailing that comes with heavy unfinished business.

Up until then, no one in the ER knew I had bought my way into the ministry for $20. But tears have always been my weakness and the survivors were my patients now. The dead guy belonged to the doctors. The live family belonged to me and it was my responsibility to take care of them in whatever way I could. A good social worker should have a full compliment of resources, an emotional tool kit if you will, of fixes, temporary or permanent. I had studied hypnotherapy and sometimes used it. I’d studied martial arts and sometimes used my skills to protect myself or a patient. Speaking Spanish was a real plus on a regular basis. Being a licensed marriage counselor was handy a few times. Understanding story structure and documentary film making even helped  once or twice. Life is full of opportunities to observe and then bring those observations to the ER where they might come in handy some time too. Tonight was the night I would reach into my bag of tricks and pull out that Universal Life Church certificate and use it with all the sincerity I could muster.

“I’m a minister myself and if you think it would help I could say a few words for your father.”

“Oh yes. Please.”

When a priest does show up he has his black suit and white collar and magic beads for props and a book of ceremonial words and passages. Everyone gets the same send off and if you are a devoted church person and deeply rooted in the ritual of religion I guess there is comfort in that.

Consistency of ritual is probably something that no one would ever say about me. More than likely it would be along the lines of “What’s he doing this time?” And they’d be right. Because most of the time I depend on something internal to guide me, something sincere, maybe even bordering on spiritual some people might say. But it’s doubtful anyone watching me do anything would be thinking “This is so ritualistic”.

My approach was totally open. With the family standing right there I would put my hand on the lifeless chest of their loved one, channeling I guess, whatever that person’s spirit directed me to say. It worried me every time I did it and was something I never looked forward to. No one hired me for ministerial duty. They hired me for social work tasks. I just happen to have had a piece of parchment saying, totally legal, I could do whatever a minister of any religion could do. A new entry on the Everything Else list.

I never talked about it much except when the nurses and docs asked what happened with that family asking for last rites. I had to tell them so they could document it in the patient’s chart and note that the family had passed through the initial stages of grief without difficulty. Thanks to Reverend Robert.

The word never got upstairs to my bosses or maybe it did and they were OK with it. I doubt if the pediatric charge nurse knew about it when she called down to the ER at one in the morning to try to get me to find a priest or a minister to come out on another cold and rainy night and do last rites on a dying child. The parents had gone home and expected to return in the morning to find the child had received last rites, something they had been unable to arrange themselves. But they deserved it and they expected it. It was my job to make it happen. It was on the Everything Else list.

No one answered at the Catholic church. The Presbyterian minister was sick and couldn’t come out. The Episcopalians only came for their own parish. And that’s how it went until three a.m. when I gave up and decided to do it myself. I was opening a can of worms with a lot of inherent problems, least of which was a whole new group of nurses knowing about the addition to the Everything Else list. I went up to talk to the charge nurse, a woman I knew well from a four month rotation I once did with her. We always got along well and she knew me as a respectful and truthful guy.

“Laurie, it’s three in the morning and no religious person is coming out tonight. Maybe the daytime social worker will have more luck but I struck out.”

“This kid could die at any time Bob. It’s a weird diagnosis. Everyone will be reading this chart and the parents will freak out if the kid doesn’t get last rites.”

Desperate times. Desperate measures.

“Laurie, bring me a fresh charting form, put a time stamp on it. I’m a minister in the Universal Life Church and I can do last rites. And I will. Then I’ll come back here and document that I did it. My documentation will be the only writing on that page. If the kid dies before his parents get here with a real minister from their real church leave the page in the chart. If a real minister comes in and does last rites with the family take my page out and toss it. Are you OK with that?”

“Is that legal?”

“Totally legal.”

I went home and wondered for a few days what happened then like a lot of these things it just slipped away. Laurie never told me what happened and I never asked. The only important thing was that the child got to go to Heaven because someone gave him last rites. That’s all that mattered.

Dividing line


About robertjlanz

Author and health care professional.
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