Lisa Nichols Hickman: Ronald McDonald is there for the ill. Is the church?

McDonald’s shows up at hospitals across the nations. Not to sell hamburgers, but to provide hospitality to families displaced by the illness of a child.

As the church observes Lent, American health care reform is at a standstill. On his journey to the cross, Jesus went out of his way to heal. Each week of Lent, Lisa Nichols Hickman will ask, "Is there any balm in Gilead?"

If baby Jesus was born in twenty-first century America, he’d have landed not in a manger but in a hospital bed. And, since God getting born by way of the Holy Spirit and the virgin womb of Mary would definitely be a high risk pregnancy, odds are the hospital bed would be in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. I’d venture to guess that one person Jesus, Mary and Joseph might run into at the hospital would surprise you. Not three wise doctors, nor a heavenly host of nurses. Not even the shepherding support staff of custodians, food service workers and nursing assistants, but another figure common to the PICU.

He has an unflappable red wig, and he is clothed in sunny yellow and broad red stripes. This isn’t the costuming of “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Godspell,” but one Ronald McDonald himself.

Ronald’s presence at the hospital where my daughter lived her first four months of life marked the first time one of my best friends was a clown. I never imagined I’d admit this, but I came to an adult love for Ronald McDonald. I’m not alone. An astounding 96% of school-aged children recognize the face of Ronald McDonald, his ubiquitous smile second only to Santa.

I make this odd pairing of Christ and the clown to consider the question of hospitality in our hospitals. At any hospital, on any given day, amidst those countless halls of medical need, opportunities abound to reach out to a stranger in need. Yet the church is not there. Hospital chaplains used to grace those doorways of opportunity with an eye for the lonely and a voice for their prayers. But with ongoing budget cuts and concern over the bottom line, chaplain service has diminished in most hospitals.

When my husband and I moved to Tucson, Arizona, I looked into potential CPE opportunities at the local hospitals. When I called the university hospital the volunteer told me, “There used to be a dozen or more chaplains here, now we are down to one half-time person.” Little did I know three years later, my family would be in need of a portion of that person’s precious twenty hours a week.

Churches, of course, send their pastors and deacons. These whiz in and out of those revolving hospital doors and rush on to the next urgent need. Even an hour, a long visit in a pastor’s schedule, is lost in the 24/7 mash of life in a modern day hospital. This not intended to make pastors or visitors feel guilty, but it is a call to creativity. Here is an opportunity for witness to people’s darkest hours, greatest joys, biggest ups and downs. Could the church, and not just corporate America, consider a vision for hospitality within the hospital halls?

McDonald’s shows up in hospitals. Not to sell hamburgers, but to provide hospitality to families displaced by the illness of a child. Whether providing overnight housing within close proximity of the hospital or offering a space within the hospital walls to retreat, the McDonald’s has a major presence in children’s pediatric units worldwide. Will it be corporate America, or the church, who will be deemed righteous when considering the question of Matthew 25:44, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

While corporations may have the finances to create spaces in every hospital across the nation, the church has the gift that matters most -- Christ himself. The makeover we need involves finding new ways to bring that joyous fool to the institutions that dominate so many lives. The crux of the matter is this: the one who is sick in our midst is the very presence of Christ. “Do you see me?” he asks. The one struggling body or soul with sickness is God incarnate on earth.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is a Presbyterian Pastor and writer. She serves at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.