malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: September 2009


MalcolmHow do you describe yourself to a new friend during your first extended, getting-to-know-you conversation?

If we are working in a particular field or place at the time, we may start there. If we have family or significant relationships in our lives, we may choose that as our starting point.  If we have just moved to a new area, we may describe where we live now or where we grew up.

Like a lot of people, I have often used my work place or my title at work as my starting point in conversation with a new friend, after I told him or her my name of course.

For the last decade and a half of my life, I would have labeled myself as a “Chaplain in an HIV clinic.” I walked side by side with persons who were newly diagnosed with HIV disease, and others who had lived with HIV for more than 20 years.  I developed programs, projects, and groups to teach patients and staff, and other people in communities how to create connection with one another during crisis-filled times.

Before I was a “HIV Chaplain,” I would have introduced myself as a “Minister of Pastoral Care” at one church and a “Minister with Singles and Families” at another.  I have also been a “Pastor,” a “Pastoral Counselor,” as well as a “Youth Minister.”

I woke up today and realized in relation to work, all my verbs have changed to the past tense. At least for a week anyway, before I take on a new one as “Director of Pastoral Care at a hospital.”

But today I am “title-less.” And this is a good thing to remember, even when I have one.

Because I am not a title, my name is “Malcolm.”  No other titles are needed to know who I am.

And there is freedom in living when we remember who we are.

We are enough when we are ourselves.

Who are you?

Nice to meet you.

Leaning Into Change

Malcolm MarlerThe boxes are packed, the office is almost empty. It is amazing how much stuff one can gather after a decade and a half in one office.

Other small tasks are to be completed in the next few hours. I am thankful for a reception this afternoon for us to say goodbye to one another one more time.

Barbara Crafton is an Episcopal priest who recently wrote the words below about what it is like to leave a place you love. Her words fit what I am feeling today about leaving the staff I love at The 1917 Clinic after 15 and 1/2 years as chaplain.

“We had felt so secure with one another, so anchored in this small world, small enough to be manageable, yet productive of more than enough drama to keep us occupied. There was always some new outrage at which to gasp, some funny human frailty exposed. My weaning from it all took a little while.

You love the place where you are, and you don’t want to leave. You don’t ever want to leave. But you do leave, and peeling yourself away from familiar people and things hurts. It hurts every time you do it, no matter how many times there are.

One of the things I have learned in this place is to lean into change, rather than to fight it.

Leaning into change means to trust even when you don’t know how it is all going to work out.  It is a trust that all will be well.

And so today, I trust to take all that my colleagues and patients have taught me to a new playing field at the hospital as Director of Pastoral Care. And I will lean into this change, even though I don’t know the answers of how my new path will go.

quilt panelWhen I first began at the clinic in 1994, we had patients dying every single day of the year. It was a very difficult time. The AIDS quilt became a symbol of the lives lost and has become the largest ongoing community arts project in the world. Each panel is roughly the size of a coffin symbolizing a life lost with a personal message inscribed.

And the quilt metaphor continues to mean something to me today as well.

My threads of my experience in the clinic are symbolized in a quilt panel, if you will, and this panel can be used in a larger quilt that represents my life as I go to a new place. Nothing is wasted.

In fact, I believe that this is true for all of us if we are open to it.  God is like a Master Quilter weaving the threads and panels of our life experience, and stitching them together to form a beautiful quilt of various colors and textures.

My most recent quilt panel took over 15 years to stitch together and now represents the personalities, color, languages, diversity and love that I have experienced in this place.  It is a beautiful mosaic.

This HIV/AIDS clinic has shown me what community and connection to the human family, and God, is all about.  If we can meet one another as we are, we can learn the lessons we so desperately need.

I want to say to each person I have spoken with, listened to, touched and hugged, thank you for sharing yourself with me and teaching me that every human being is a member of the same family.

Hello to you my brother, and hello to you my sister.

It helps me to remember my purpose for being in this world as I understand it:

“My purpose is to create community and connection for persons with one another and with God, especially during critical, crisis-filled times.” For it is within these times we are most open to God’s presence in our lives and learning what is most important.

I have learned firsthand here that we are all children of God–every single one of us including Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, and every other ethnic group. Every straight, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered person is a child of God. Every Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and every other person of faith and persons of no faith, is a child of God.

And so I close with the words that I have said to our staff at the close of our weekly meeting together:  “Thank you for who you are, and for what you do, to make this place such a healing and caring place for so many.”

Peace be with you, and don’t forget to lean into the change when it comes in your life.  Be not afraid. God is with you. You are not alone.



Note: The AIDS Quilt panel shown above has the names of three persons I knew who died in my first year at the clinic: Adrian Daniels, Billy Cox, and Bob Axelton.  Adrian’s funeral was the first of many funerals I had a month after I began, and Billy Cox’s life continues to impact me to this day.

In Kelly’s Own Words

The following blog was written by Kelly Ross-Davis, Director of Education at The 1917 Clinic.   Kelly and Malcolm have worked together for 14 of his 15 years at The 1917 Clinic.

Kelly Ross-DavisThe last week of your 15+ years at The 1917 Clinic is here. Of course, everyone at the 1917 Clinic wishes you the very best on your next journey down the street at the Hospital. We know that those who will have the opportunity to work with you in the future are fortunate more than they can know now. We know that hospital patients and community members will benefit from your compassionate approach and innovative solutions.  We know all this because we have already received the gifts from you at the 1917 Clinic.

As the first AIDS Chaplain at a university hospital, you offered emotional support initially to people who were dying and then to people who were living. To widen the reach, you taught members of the faith community how to respond with love and compassion to people with HIV disease.  During the 12 year history of volunteer Care/Support Teams, you probably taught (or trained others to teach) over 100,000 people how to deal with grief and loss.  One method you used was to cut up little pieces of paper (16 to be exact) and to experience a very personal exercise of understanding loss.

You emphasized three main points.

1. “Help a person feel what they are feeling as they feel it. Ask an extra question for clarification of that feeling. Be quiet. Listen. Don’t try to fix.” How many times have you demonstrated this to me personally as I went through marriage, childbirth, divorce, parenting and professional challenges – you have been there through the joys and the hardships, nurturing without judging.

2. “Walk at the same pace emotionally as the person you are supporting. Resist the temptation to fix or speed up the process of change. Remember to walk beside not drag a person to a different place.” Malcolm, I can remember you having to live up to this test when your father was ill. He wanted to go out to eat and took forever to get from the car to the front door of the restaurant. Your father still had much to offer and stopped to talk with everyone and needed to move slowly on his path. Getting to the dinner table was not his only objective. Learning to see life from his perspective made you an even more caring son.

3. “Take on the role of student, and allow someone else to teach you.” We work with amazingly intelligent and insightful people at the 1917 Clinic, but the lessons learned from our Care Team Friends, Heartsong participants, and all the other patients of the clinic are deep. Lessons of struggle, endurance, acceptance, hope and love.

Malcolm, I remember the day I met you at an AIDS Volunteer Training event at Cathedral Church of the Advent.  Within ten minutes, I said to myself, “I want to work with this man.” The first day I came to work as an AmeriCorps member you played a song (not on youtube but on a cassette tape) that Harry had written and performed. I cried that first day and am so thankful for all the tears and the laughter we have shared over the past 14 years.

Many training events later (and after some deep soul searching), you met and married the wonderful Mary Sullivan and gained two delightful stepchildren, Kiki and Brendan. Thankfully, you all opted to relocate from North Carolina to Alabama, and the clinic got to keep you too. More patients than ever before got connected to holistic medial care through you.

We all wish you the best. I encourage everyone to share any lessons Malcolm has taught you personally, other meaningful stories, or positive wishes for the future.  We want his blog to be full and rich, along with his future.

Kelly Ross-Davis,

1917 Clinic Colleague, Friend

Challenges of Positive Transitions

Career TransitionI had forgotten how stressful “positive transitions” or changes can be in our lives. Even when a change is good, the journey from the familiar to the unknown is unsettling to say the least.  My present job has lasted fifteen and a half years and it has been half of my thirty year career.  And yet I hesitate even to say that this is transition is difficult.

If only everyone could be as fortunate.  People like John and Bill and Laura are just a few of my friends or acquaintances who are looking for jobs right now because they don’t have one.  Others are unhappy with the job they do have, or others have been laid off from a job,  or still others have just graduated from school and are looking for a job.

Any one of them would LOVE to have this problem of a “job transition.”

So on the Richter Scale of life transitions from 1-10, getting a job that you wanted when you already have a great job shouldn’t be that hard, right?  Not exactly.

Whether I “should” feel this way or not, I feel a wide range of feelings.  They are all good, even the sad feelings.

Yesterday I was aware of the lump in my throat that just stayed there as I met with a patient who was on death’s door two years ago but today is a picture of health and is getting married next month.  His mother brought a camera to the clinic to take our picture together.  Hope abounds.

A few minutes later excitement swirled in my head with new ideas for my future job as I talked with a friend who is a Director of Pastoral Care in another state, and I could feel the energy of anticipation flowing through my body again.

Later in the same day, a deep insecurity whispered deep in my soul and said, “What in the heck are you doing taking this new job?  You don’t know anything.”  And seeds of self-doubt tried to find fertile soil.  Mary listened to my confusion after dinner and reassured me that I would be fine in my new work.  “I believe in you,” she said.  And I believed her when she said I would be ok.

The main reason for observing this metamorphosis that is happening within me is because I believe it is one of the keys to getting through it healthily.

If I ignore the feelings of grief in leaving my colleague Kelly Ross-Davis, who has worked with me the last 14 years and is now Director of Education at the clinic, I will not honor how much we have been through together.

Kelly was there when I was going through my divorce and listened to my struggle over many months and never complained of my self-absorption.  And when her daughter Rachel was born, I was one of the first to get to hold her in the hospital and later developed a Support Team for Kelly’s family when complications developed for a few months.  She attended my father’s out-of-town funeral with several other colleagues.  I appreciated her planning and leading  over a dozen annual Heartsong Retreats with me, and hundreds of hours in meetings planning Support Team trainings.

When you share your life and work with others so closely for so long, it is a good thing to feel this sadness.  Kelly’s presence has made an enormous difference in my life. Thank you Kelly.

Today, instead of gulping down my lunch, I sat and reminisced and laughed with three of our social workers, Crystal, Wes, and Kathy.  I have known Wes and Kathy since 1994.  Over the years it was sometimes hard to know who among us were the social workers and who was the chaplain as our work intertwined in so many intricate ways.  I remember the day when Wes adopted his son, Sam, and brought him to the clinic for all of us to hold when he was only a few days old.  And now Sam is one of the most talented dancers for his age group in the nation.

What I am trying to say is working at The 1917 Clinic has not been only about caring for persons who are HIV positive, but also how the staff has shared our lives with one another.  The baptisms and weddings and bar mitzvahs and funerals that I have attended or led related to the staff are too numerous to count.

I will miss being at the clinic. But I wouldn’t change the decision I made to leave the church I loved in Connecticut to come here for anything in the world.

And so now, a new chapter is being written in my life.  And I am thankful to have this new opportunity to be The Director of Pastoral Care at the hospital.  I will be leaving the clinic in a couple of weeks with a thankful heart.

I wonder what new adventures are ahead?

With a grateful heart for what has been, and what will be.

Living in the World of Inbetween

BridgeSince I announced the beginning of my transition from my job as Chaplain at The 1917 (HIV) Clinic to become the Director of Pastoral Care at the hospital beginning October 5th, I am keenly aware of living in two worlds.

On one hand, I am saying goodbye to as many patients as possible whom I have come to know and love over the years.

I am calling or emailing almost 25 patients per day to make sure they hear the news directly from me.  I want them to know that the valuable lessons they taught me will be shared with many others in my new ministry.  I want them to know that I love them and am grateful for them.  And finally, I want them to know that there will continue to be staff at The 1917 Clinic who will love them and care for them after I am gone.

I am spending time with staff, leaning in office doorways and talking about how much I appreciate the work each one does on a daily basis.  There are meetings as I hand off some of my duties to my colleagues who are eager and willing to pick up my responsibilities in the meantime.

I am also keenly aware that ALL that I wanted to get done before I leave in two weeks won’t be finished. I am trying to prioritize these tasks but this place will go on regardless what I do in the meantime.  And I am deeply thankful for that.

And on the other hand, I am developing goals and priorities for my new challenges at the hospital.  Even though the hospital is only 4 blocks away, it is another world.

So in the meantime, what are my priorities as I live in this world of “in-between?”

  1. Take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  2. Let go of the idea I will ever get “finished” and that is ok.
  3. Breathe deeply and trust that there is a bigger purpose in all of this that I cannot see.

And the truth is that all of us live in the world of in-between.

We live between the world of  “what has been” and the world of  “what will be.”  This land of in-between is called the “what is.”

And the only way to live in the “what is” is to pay attention, and to be present to what is going on today, right in front of us.

For that is all we have.  And it is enough.


Significant Goodbyes

Harry Wingfield

Harry Wingfield

Many of us are uncomfortable with goodbyes.  A goodbye can be temporary or final.   It can mean “I’ll see you again soon,” or “hope we will see one another in this lifetime.”  Sometimes, it means goodbye forever.

This month it seems like everywhere I turn I am saying goodbye–to our two children who are both freshman in college, to my colleagues and patients at The 1917 Clinic as I get ready to transition from my work for the past 15 and 1/2 years to a new position as Director of Pastoral Care at the hospital, and to friends who have moved away, and to one who has died.

Learning to say goodbye is a way to honor and appreciate a relationship and is an important part of our lives.  It is a way for me to say to you that you matter to me.  It is important for me to say goodbye.

In Alla Bozrath Campbell’s book, “Life is Goodbye, Life is Hello:  Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss,”  she talks about grieving as a positive process that can actually bring healing and wholeness in our lives.  Without saying goodbye, I don’t invest in future relationships as deeply because I won’t want it to hurt when we part in the future.

So recently I took time to say goodbye to Harry Wingfield this month before he moved to San Antonio, TX.

If we had a “poster patient” at The 1917 Clinic, Harry would be high on the list.   He certainly isn’t the only one, but he is one of the ones I have known.

When I met him 16 years ago he was on the interview committee for my job as chaplain at the clinic.  A few months later he was so sick in the hospital from HIV/AIDS that twice I prayed with him, said goodbye and walked out of the room expecting him to die soon.

He lived and new medicines became available in 1996.  In 2002, he was hired by our clinic to work with data in our research program, first temporarily then permanently.  I helped him say goodbye to his Support Team we had developed for him with volunteers from Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church because he was doing so well and didn’t need their assistance anymore.

Harry said goodbye to his disability check (imagine that), and went to work full-time.  He said it took multiple times at the Social Security office to get them to stop sending his check.  They just weren’t used to that request.

Eventually he was offered a job promotion.   And now he has made a recent career move to accept a new job in San Antonio and is off for a new adventure.  I will miss him but he is doing what we hope many of our patients will do in living with HIV–have a life!

We went to lunch and told one another how much we appreciated one another, remembered fun and difficult times together, laughed and became misty eyed when we said our goodbye.  I am so proud of Harry Wingfield.  We may see one another again in this lifetime, maybe not.   None of us really know that.  But I am at peace with that, either way.  It will be ok.  Harry’s influence will be with me as he taught me about goodbyes.

We have closure, and it is ok, no matter what.  That is what goodbyes are all about.  It is well between us.

In the meantime, Harry Wingfield and hundreds of other persons living with HIV have taught me to say goodbye to old ways of living and to live life fully.

And for this valuable lesson, I thank you Harry, Jeff,  Alan, Cynthia, Eric, Greg, Ruth, Billy, Mary, and hundreds more who are living life fully.

Godspeed to you all.

I love you, goodbye.  It will be ok.


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