The youngest of 13 kids and the first in her family to attend college, Catina Parrish earned a bachelor’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University and later went on to receive her master’s in administration and supervision from Tennessee State University. She taught middle school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools for seven years, until she began to feel God calling her to ministry. Though she says she denied that calling at every turn, she finally resigned from teaching, accepted a lower stress job at Aegis Sciences Corporation and entered a ministers in training program at her church. She soon found herself at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, another calling that was difficult for her to accept. During that time, she interned with Chaplain Patricia Brock for six weeks at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center and realized almost immediately that the gratification she felt doing chaplaincy work was like nothing she’d ever experienced. Shortly after Catina completed a residency at Nashville’s VA Medical Center in October, Chaplain Brock called to say she was retiring. While Chaplain Brock couldn’t guarantee Catina the job, she’d already told the higher ups that there was no one she’d rather leave the hospital to than Catina. That was three years ago. We sat down with Catina in the chapel at TriStar Southern Hills to learn more about her calling, her role as a hospital chaplain, and the impact she has on the people she serves. Please welcome this month’s FACE of TriStar, Lead Chaplain at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, Catina Parrish.
How did you decide to go from teaching to ministry?
In 2008, I had been praying about my purpose and my destiny. We had this prominent minister who was known nationwide come preach about God’s elect lady. He talked about how God calls you, and how you always look for reasons to back out. As I sat there on the edge of the bench, I was like, “Hmm, still not talking to me.” Then, he came to the end of the pulpit, and I was probably 10 rows back, and he pointed, and it really did feel like he was pointing at me, and he said, “The problem is not with the calling, the problem is you haven’t accepted the calling.” Afterward, we were in the vestibule of the church, and people were fellowshipping. Out of all the people who were talking, I kept hearing this voice. It wasn’t yelling, but it was defined, and it was coming from this little girl, who was about 5. When I got ready to leave, the same little girl was against the wall waiting for an adult to take her home. At this point it’s 8 or 9 at night, and I’m ready to go home, but there’s just something about this little girl. So we started talking, and then I said, “I need to talk to your mom about getting you in the school where I teach,” because she was from a poverty stricken area, and she was so brilliant, but the school she would eventually go to would underserve her. She said, “I’m with my aunt, we can go find her.” I said, “OK, but let me get your number.” She said, “Let me get my purse.” So, she went to get her purse and she was fumbling around for a pen like we would. I said, “Tell me your name.” She said, “You know my name,” and I said, “No, I don’t.” She said, “Yes you do, my name is Destiny.”
I tell you that because (Catina tears up) if there was anything that sealed the deal for me that night, it was Destiny. We stayed in contact for a little bit. This calling on my life was the heaviest thing that I ever did. God, who am I to go out and represent you? I promise you there were times when I was like, “I am not doing this.” I had logged Destiny’s number in my phone, and when I would get down about it, my phone would ring, and whose name would pop up? So I had to keep Destiny in the forefront. This is your destiny, you can’t back down on it.
You said you helped a friend in the ministers in training program with his application to Vanderbilt Divinity School, and an elder in the church wondered why you weren’t applying as well. Why was it so difficult for you to accept that God might be calling you to Vanderbilt?
Vanderbilt Divinity School, Vanderbilt anything, I felt was out of reach for a little black girl from East Nashville. I thought, “God I have already said yes to the calling. I know you aren’t getting ready to send me to Vanderbilt and set me up for failure.” But He knows He has to speak to me in volumes, and He knows I need visual things. So, I was still in prayer about the whole thing, even after He’d helped me with the application and opened the door for the interview, and I was having dinner with a girlfriend at J. Alexander’s on West End. I was telling her about how I still wasn’t sure, and one by one, people kept walking in with their Vanderbilt shirts on. Then, we heard all these sirens, and we look up, and Vanderbilt police are everywhere. So, I was like, “God, what are you doing?”
My mom does not have a degree, but she is one of the wisest women I know, and she trusts God. She said, “Catina, you haven’t lived as long as I’ve lived. I’ve seen God bring me through many a thing, and if He wants you to go to Vanderbilt, He’ll get you through.” My pastor always said, “God does not always look for your ability, He’s looking for your availability, and will you say, ‘Yes?'” If you give Him your yes, He’ll do the rest.
What are your responsibilities as a hospital chaplain?
A chaplain provides spiritual and emotional support to patients, patients’ families and to our staff, because I’m a firm believer that you have to take care of the people who take care of the people. Our staff are spiritual and emotional beings. They have stuff that they bring to work with them. They have parents who are sick, they have loved ones who have died, and they may be challenged in their own health issues.
So, we start our day here with prayer. Whenever I come in, I usually prepare a prayer to pray over our loudspeaker, and that’s uncommon, especially in this day and time. You have to be kind of careful about practicing spirituality in open places, but because I am ecumenical in my presentation, it provides a safe space for everybody. So, when I pray that prayer, I pray a very general prayer.
When I come in, I also print the census report to see who’s here. We look at the most critical areas first. We have regular critical care and then our neurological intensive care unit, and we try to serve those spaces first because obviously those patients and those families are probably the ones who are in the most dire need and the most emotionally vulnerable at that point. We conduct a spiritual assessment to see where people are, what they might need, even if it means simply praying with them, simply being with them, doing some things to provide words of encouragement and words of hope and peace. We can do something as simple as praying with people, but something as complex as a baptism or a wedding. We’re here to do whatever it takes to spiritually give people what they need.
We also have a 15-minute chapel service every Wednesday at 12:30. Staff mostly come, but we do have patients that come. We prepare a message for that and take prayer requests.
Do patients get away without you knowing what happened to them?
That was one of my growing edges as I went through my residency, because when you start a thing you want to finish it. I had a hard time not being able to know when to let go, to be done. Here though, I have to say, I think I’ve grown some just because of the work I do and maturing in the work. You have to cut the tie here. It’s easier here because this is an acute care hospital, so the people aren’t here long. The longest patients we have are usually on our rehab floor. They’ve had strokes or things of that nature or some sort of orthopedic surgery that is going to require them to be rehabilitated, so you get them a little bit longer. Other than that, our patients rise and fly, so you have to trust in the work that you do with them while they’re here. I think what also gives me consolation is that the word of God says, “One man planteth, another man watereth, but God gives the increase.” You never know where you are in that process. Sometimes you may just have to plant the seed, and somebody else comes along and waters it. God ultimately does all the rest of the work that needs to be done.
Does anyone ever keep in touch with you?
Every now and then we meet people who keep up with us. There was one lady who was frantic about reviving her husband at home because she thought it was against his will. He obviously had some pre-existing health conditions, and they had been on this journey of him being sick, and this night, he coded at the house. She gave him chest compressions. She got some oxygen and pulse going, and then she ran outside and got somebody to help her. She got him here, and we got him in our intensive care unit, and we had to intubate him. They called me in because after they got him settled, she started thinking, “He told me not to ever let him be on this machine.” She began to come unglued, and she was trying to get them to take him off the ventilator. I talked to her about her spirituality and her walk with God, and how God had come to give us life. You took a vow to God to be in sickness and in health with this man. You acted as a human being. I don’t know any wife who loves her husband who would have just let him die. God sees that in you and has blessed that, but here’s why I think you misunderstood. If your husband from this point forward, if he has to live on a ventilator, then you have broken a promise, but there’s no way in the world that your husband didn’t want you to preserve his life. So, he was OK for a little while, and she called and let us know that he went into rehabilitation, and later, she called us to let us know he died. Then, she called to let us know she moved to Chicago. So, maybe once a year, she’ll call and say, “I just want to thank y’all.”
Do you feel like you are where you need to be right now? Are you feeling any other calls or tugs?
I’m not feeling any other calls or tugs anywhere else. I can honestly say that, but I do know that nothing lasts always. God has given me many gifts to share, but as far as a pull away from ministry, absolutely not.
Thank you to Catina Parrish for enlightening readers to the importance and complexity of a chaplain’s work. To learn more about TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center, click here.