This Place Where You Are

By Rev. Mark Estes

September 2013

Rev. Mark Estes

Twelve years ago I walked into the University Art Museum to look at photographer Sebastio Salgado’s exhibition entitled “Migrations.” I remember that beautiful Sunday afternoon well. My idea was to see some art, hang out with my wife Susan, and have some lunch in a Berkeley café afterwards.

But that is not what happened. That day, looking at the pictures portraying immense suffering in the world, I felt a nerve had been struck in me. I was stopped in my tracks by compassion, and I simply could not just walk away. At that time, I had no idea that I had pushed the first domino over in what would result in a spiritual chain reaction that is still in process today.

I identify that event as a U-turn in my life and a significant step on my path to ministry. So it is with awe and gratitude that I now reflect the words of the Persian mystic Hafiz that resonate so deeply in me: “This place where you are right now, God has circled on a map for you.”

In this place, here on Ordination Day, I look back and see that my map is well-worn and there are so many spots circled on my circuitous route to my calling. I see it took riding a bike 600 miles to benefit the SF AIDS Foundation. When I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of that ride, I was vulnerably open to hear my call to be with the dying—as revealed in a book entitled Final Gifts, written by two hospice nurses.

For years after reading that book, I looked for my place of service by being trained as a hospice volunteer, refocusing my photography business onto healthcare, and providing infant bereavement photography in NICUs to assist grieving parents. Then at Zen Hospice end-of-life workshops, Rev. Jennifer Block talked about the possibilities of chaplaincy. It seemed revolutionary and enlightening when she spoke of instructing her Buddhist chaplaincy students that they could pray with Christians as an act of compassionate service.

It then took finding CHI as the container to discover and develop my interfaith understanding and take my first steps of enacting my practice as an interfaith hospital chaplain. It was here, at CHI , that Father Tom Bonacci pointed out that we are humans not “–isms”.  And it was here that I experienced Transformation by Integration; where God granted me the serenity through Matt Sanders’ songs and stories; where my sermon on Tikkun Olam was painted, not spoken; where the Kabalistic Tree of Life became a model for my spiritual and psychological development; where Buddha Dharma became my gateway to understanding God as the realization of the nature of all things; and where I met Jesus again for the first time in the Protestant Christianity module (the module I most wanted to avoid and which turned out to be the one that touched me the most deeply.)

Over these past fifteen months, my place has been in hospitals, intimately accompanying patients in all stages of trauma and illness, healing and dying. This place where I am right now is my true calling. It is the work I was made for. This place where I am! This place of witnessing another’s suffering is where I fulfill my life calling—right now!

Right now is the act of being mindfully present in this ministry. And God has circled it on a map for me.