By MARNIE McALLISTER, Record Assistant Editor
In 1999, Nikki Lutz’s father died at Baptist Hospital East. The family was distraught; it had happened very fast. In the midst of their crisis, they were disappointed with the Catholic Church because no one representing the church visited the dying man or his family.
A few years later, Lutz, who works in an accountant’s office, said she saw a story in The Record about the formation of hospital pastoral care teams. The Archdiocese of Louisville needed volunteers to visit patients and their families in local hospitals, the story said.
The ministry is now known as the Befriender Ministry. It trains and sends teams of lay volunteers into five hospitals. It is also among the many archdiocesan ministries supported by the Catholic Services Appeal.
Lutz signed up for the ministry, completed a training program and has been visiting Catholic patients at Baptist Hospital East ever since. She usually doesn’t know how her visits affect patients and families. But after one recent visit, she found out.
Lutz said she was touched when she entered Bill Miller’s room on Oct. 30 and found his wife holding his hand, looking lovingly at him as he rested in bed.
“It touched me to see the love and intimacy,” Lutz said during a phone interview Monday. “He opened his eyes and I introduced myself to him. I told him I was there for him and that I was going to light a candle for him at church.”
They went on to talk about all sorts of things, she said. He told Lutz about his 60th wedding anniversary and the food they had at the celebration. And he talked about his plans to go home the next day.
“I really got involved in his story because it lit him up. You could sense the joy and happiness,” Lutz recalled. “He was laughing and his wife was laughing. It brought them a little bit of joy.
“He passed the next day,” Lutz noted.
“I was glad I was present there to help bring out the joy before he passed on.”
As it happened, Miller is the father of Michelle Herberger, coordinator of pastoral care ministries for the archdiocese. She’s the one who organizes the Befriender Ministry. And she’s grateful that Lutz and others like her are committed to their work.
“The people who go in and do this are amazing. My faith is deepened because of what they do,” Herberger said. “It gives me hope at times … when I ask myself, ‘Where are you God?’ And then I see these volunteers and I think, ‘Oh, there you are.’ ”
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough volunteers right now. The archdiocese has 27 Befriender ministers visiting five hospitals — Baptist East, the University of Louisville Hospital, Jewish Hospital, Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital and Kosair Children’s Hospital.
“We have Catholic patients who need to be visited. The hospitals want teams. But we have to have more people,” Herberger said, noting that three volunteers are needed at each hospital each day. “In order to get people there five days a week, I need 15 people at each hospital.”
Herberger said volunteers do not need to have medical training or experience in counseling. The most important qualities, she said, are a desire to listen to people and a willingness to pray with them. All the training they need is provided.
Gerry Hope, a retired pharmacist who began volunteering for this ministry about four weeks ago, said the ministry may seem uncomfortable to a lot of people.
“When you go into something like this, you sort of worry. You don’t want to say the wrong thing,” he said. The training, he noted, teaches volunteers to be active listeners and to avoid trying to solve problems.
“It has been a really good experience for me. And it does touch people.”
When he looked into the Befriender Ministry, Hope said, the training program and commitment were more than he expected.
“But it seemed worthwhile and I have really enjoyed the process,” he added. “At Sts. Mary and Elizabeth, there may be 15 to 20 patients who list themselves as being Catholic. We go into the room and tell them we’re with the pastoral care team and ask if they want to talk about anything. Sometimes it’s a very brief thing. It shows them the church is there with them and praying with them.”
For those who want to know more about this ministry, the archdiocese will offer hour-long information sessions throughout December and early January.
They will be offered in Room 6 at the Maloney Center, 1200 S. Shelby St., on the following dates: Dec. 4, 11 and 18 at noon; Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m.; Jan. 3, 15 and 22 at noon; and on Jan. 16 and 23 at 6:30 p.m.
Training for the Befriender Ministry will begin in February.
For more information, call Michelle Herberger in the Family Ministries Office of the archdiocese at 636-0296.