Chaplain offers comfort, support

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Nash UNC Health Care volunteer chaplain Mark Dickens, left, shares a laugh with Gwendolyn Alston as he visits with her Wednesday at Nash General Hospital.


Staff Writer

Sunday, February 24, 2019

One volunteer chaplain at Nash UNC Health Care was recently recognized for logging in more that 12,367 hours in chaplaincy service.

That’s more than the accumulated totals of the chaplains with the second- and third-most number of hours. And that only includes hours logged since the hospital began computing them over the past decade.

The Rev. Mark Dickens has served as a volunteer chaplain at the hospital for roughly 21 years.

“It’s been a blessing to serve at this hospital because I just have a heart for people. Mine is a ministry of presence ... being there for patients and families at their greatest times of need. It’s what chaplains do, and all of us see a lot of pain, distress, suffering, sadness — and sometimes, even anger,” Dickens said.

Dickens said he also strives to meet the needs of staff members as well.

“I like to ask them how they are feeling because they need ministering, too,” he said. “Patient deaths and code blues take a toll on their emotions. You don’t get used to death.They sometimes have family situations they are going through, too. I talk to them and pray then,” Dickens said.

At 54, Dickens is a relatively young man, but he has accomplished a lot with his life. He joined the Army when he was 18 and served in the armed forces for eight years, he said. He is married and he and his wife have nine children and three grandchildren. And he serves as pastor of the Holy Ghost Power of Deliverance & Restoration Ministries in Whitakers, a ministry that was founded by his late mother, Alice McKnight Dickens.

He also volunteers with other agencies. He has been serving as a law enforcement chaplain with the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office for more than 10 years. He also promotes the “Shield a Badge with Prayer” program offered by the N.C. Sheriffs Chaplain Association.

But the work of a hospital chaplain continues to draw him enough that he sometimes serves as many as 72 hours a week at no pay.

“I’m a chaplain to everyone, to people of all faiths. I love people and my desire is simply to draw beside patients and family. To be of real service, a chaplain must draw close, walk with these people during challenging times, feel what they’re feeling and cry their tears,” Dickens said. “It’s not an easy job.”

Dickens recalls one particularly difficult moment that nearly marked the end of his service in that role. He saw a child die.

“I recall getting a call one Easter Monday morning at 1 a.m. to come to the hospital. It was my first year as a chaplain. The patient was a 12-year-old girl — same age as my own daughter — and this beautiful child was very sick and unable to breathe on her own. I was so upset I tried to turn in my hospital ID badge later that day, giving up on my role as a chaplain. After much prayer, I began to see this was something God had called me to do. It wasn’t my decision to make. That was over 20 years ago,” Dickens said. 

Danita Perkins, director of pastoral care at Nash UNC Health Care, said Dicken’s work makes an impact.

“Mark honors the ‘spirit’ of our patients, families and staff. He knows how to bear witness to their struggles by encouraging them to explore their concerns and openly express their feelings without feeling rejected or judged,” Perkins said. “In other words, he knows how to make people feel heard and not alone; that makes him a loving, compassionate and effective chaplain.”

John Griffin of Nash UNC Health Care contributed to this story.