As the choking smoke from burning garbage, tires, and tear gas began to fill the hallways of the busy five-hundred-bed hospital, Marina Westerdahl (MABTS ‘17) calmly began to visit with her patients in their moment of need. Through her restrictive and often uncomfortably warm full personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of her new standard-issue uniform, Marina recalls sitting with one woman in what was becoming an increasingly worrisome situation. Reflecting what seemed to be on the minds of all who were sheltered inside the near-capacity hospital that evening, her patient asked, “Is this the apocalypse?” Marina responded, “I’m beginning to wonder that myself.”
Marina serves as a chaplain, not in a war zone, but at Providence Portland Medical Center in the heart of downtown Portland, Oregon. The COVID-19 pandemic had already been taxing this busy hospital staff with unbearable stress and additional needs. Hospital beds were filled with critically ill patients, the behavioral health and substance abuse unit where Marina conducts most of her ministry could no longer accept additional patients, and now protests in the heart of the city on this day had disintegrated into rioting outside their front doors.
This is the emerging front lines of ministry among the hurting and vulnerable in America today. For Marina, she couldn’t imagine applying her education from Knox anywhere else.
"I love this work,” Marina shares with an unusual sense of optimism, “but it's exhausting. It's only by God's strength."
Marina, born in Argentina where her father was a missionary church planter, is also surrounded by a family of medical professionals including her husband who runs a physician practice in the Portland area. Initially pursuing a career in academia, Marina became unsettled about her future as she considered her seminary options.
“What am I going to do with this degree?” Marina recalls asking herself. "What is it all for? How does it make a difference in people's lives?"
Deep questions like these are often on the minds of seminary students as they grow in their faith, the scriptures, and seek to demonstrate the Gospel in the world in meaningful ways. It’s the natural implications of a transformative faith that gives new life and purpose, especially when personally confronted with the growing challenges and suffering of others around the world.
"When you read Scripture through the eyes of the vulnerable, the poor, and the hurting,” Marina explains as she reflects on her calling as a chaplain, “It gives you a new perspective." For Marina, academic scholarship and reflection weren’t enough. She longed for a practical way to see the fruit of her ministry come alive and make a difference in the lives of others.
As a woman struggling to find her place in Christian ministry, it was a friend who turned Marina toward the possibility of chaplaincy, “I had never even considered it before.” But it was here, in a ministry context where she encountered people day after day in their deepest moments of pain and despair, that she found her calling. "I realized,” Marina states with clarity, “it's what I always wanted and was created to do."
Marina cites her experience at Knox Theological Seminary as the place that equipped her for this very calling. “[Knox] taught me to think critically and theologically,” she explains. Hospital chaplaincy requires a level of specific training while on the job, but it was Knox that prepared her for the intense level of theological, emotional, and experiential reflection that is required of her daily. "I wouldn't be able to do this without my education from Knox," Marina proudly shares.
Rest assured, Portland is not at the center of apocalyptic prophecy or fulfillment. However, the tangible ministry opportunities present today serve as a glimpse into the urgent work that is needed by Christian leaders, ministers, practitioners, and laypersons in today’s unsettled world. Through it all, Marina self-describes the last twelve months as, “A very difficult and fulfilling year.” Her testimony serves as a reminder to all believers who look to the finished work of Christ, the ongoing witness of the Church in the world, and the Christian’s call to be a messenger of hope in every season. In the words of James, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17, NIV)
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