A hospital room is not a pulpit.
That's Lesson One, explains Kundan Nasir, on his rounds as a student chaplain at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, Mercer County.
"There's no liturgy for a patient visit, and I fall on my face a lot," says Nasir, 28, who is pursuing a master's degree in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary.
"Sometimes I say the patient's name wrong when I'm praying with them. Or I misread their diagnosis on the chart. But that's OK."
The Washington Township resident is sharing these insights with patient Shereen Semple. She sits up in bed in the suburban Trenton hospital, snuggled under a favorite blanket from home.
"I place a lot of faith in the person performing the procedure, and I place a tremendous amount of trust in God," says Semple, 42, an epidemiologist who is recovering from surgery.
Nasir nods, a gentle but vivid presence in the chair next to where Semple is resting. She has his total attention.
"It's overwhelming," Semple continues. "Suddenly, the phone calls I didn't return at work or the laundry in the basement don't seem so important anymore."
The devout Catholic, who lives in Hamilton with her husband and young daughter, clearly takes comfort from this Presbyterian minister-in-training, whose parents came to the United States from Pakistan.
"I don't look like your average Anglo-Saxon minister, and that breeds interest and conversation," Nasir tells me later.
His caramel skin and glossy black hair suggest several racial and ethnic possibilities. People are curious, "and that's a tool for me," he adds.
Nasir, whose father was a Presbyterian pastor, says he's from a "conservative and traditional" religious background. Chaplaincy training has been an opportunity to challenge himself, spiritually and otherwise.
"It's a great gift that I've been given, as a Christian Pakistani, to be a minority in my own [ancestral] land, and to be a racial minority in my homeland," says Nasir, who was born in the United States. "These are tools so I can be what I believe God wants me to be - a minister."
Some patients don't want to see a clergyman when he looks in on them. Others are willing to chat, but not for long.
"I've experienced a unique connectedness with patients. But honestly, sometimes that's not there," Nasir says. "I just let the patient know I'm here for them."
Others don't want to see a chaplain, period.
"I find the ones that are the most standoffish are the ones who would benefit most from a visit," Nasir says. "I let them know I can be a sounding board . . . and sometimes that opens up a dialogue.
"I find what happens with me and the patient is that we start with a blank slate," he continues. "And as we have a dialogue and a discussion, we paint a picture of God together."
Listening is the key, says Ted Taylor, a Quaker, who is chaplain and oversees the Clinical Pastoral Education program at the 200-bed hospital. He says the work can be "transformational" for clergy and patient.
Nasir has been at Robert Wood Johnson three days a week since October and will complete the 400-hour program in May.
"This was the place where God wanted me to be," says the trainee, who works as a paralegal in Mount Laurel. He and his wife, Kira, are expecting their first child any day now, Nasir tells Semple.
They move deeper into their conversation. They talk about fear, and faith, and other things that matter.
A few days later, Semple's husband, Sean, tells me the surgery was a success. Shereen is back home and doing well.
"We were in a scary situation. There was a great deal of uncertainty," he says.
"But after [Nasir] left, I could tell that he had lifted her spirits. Which lifted mine as well."
Contact Kevin Riordan