Life, Death, and the Gideons

We’ve all seen Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms. Until this past Tuesday, however, I’d never met a Gideon in person. They showed up at the hospital unannounced, shuttled to our door in a van full of Bibles and other Gideons. It seems that men from all over the country (I have since learned that Gideons are all men) had gotten together to hit a bunch of NYC hospitals and other organizations this week. They managed to track down a colleague and I despite the pastoral care department’s hard-to-find location in the maze of hospital corridors. We had no idea what to do with them, so we pleaded new intern cluelessness and paged the staff chaplain. Then we passed them off on the Roman Catholic priest and left to take care of an emergency involving a baby, thinking we’d been effective in avoiding further contact. Ha! Was I ever wrong!


Much to my great unhappiness, the staff chaplain had me help her babysit the Gideons. By babysit I mean follow them around while they asked staff and patients if they’d like a Bible or a New Testament with Psalms. I did everything short of flatly refusing to help. I said I had patients to see (I did) and when I took lunch I confess that I went somewhere that I knew to be less than speedy with lunch orders. As I walked around the hospital with them I’m sure I was a ridiculous sight – a woman in a collar trying not to get too close to the men with the cart full of Bibles, yet always lurking within earshot. It was a weird experience. They were certainly nice enough, and many staff members seemed to be genuinely please when they were stopped and offered a New Testament in the hallway. But they also made my skin crawl. And they made me really angry. After an hour or so of following them around, I said I really needed to see some patients (which was true.) They basically told me that whatever conversation I have with patients is fleeting, but the Bible is there 24 hours a day. They also told a colleague and I that by bringing in all of those Bibles they were “arming us with swords.” 


I was so angry at their one-size-fits-all approach, at their smug self-assurance, at the idea that they thought all my patients, or any patients need is the Bible. I don’t say this because I think I’m a good chaplain, or because I think chaplains can solve all problems. I say this because they honestly had no idea what was going on in any patient’s room, or on any unit for that matter, and I don’t really think they cared. I care very deeply about context and meeting the patient where they are. Based on their “what you really need is Jesus” approach, I don’t think it ever crossed the Gideon’s mind to think of those things. It didn’t matter if a patient was an Orthodox Jew, or had been seriously hurt by religion in the past. They had no sense of who had recently had a knee replaced or who was dying of leukemia, of who had just lost a baby, or of who was going through alcohol withdrawal.  It didn’t matter that they might make it harder for chaplains like me (who are committed to honoring patient’s beliefs) to gain entry into patients’ rooms. They just went around with their blunt Bible sword, hoping to “save the lost” as their website says. To make matters worse, there’s really very little budget for pastoral care at my or any hospital. If we want Bibles (and I truly do want to provide them for patients that desire them) we have to put up with the visits from the Gideons.


~ by Sophia on October 15, 2009.

2 Responses to “Life, Death, and the Gideons”

  1. It’s interesting that the US arm of Gideons is so militant in its approach…Here in the UK both men and women are involved, and they take a less aggressive approach, so are welcomed into secular state schools (where they present a New Testament and Psalms to all year 7 children) and many hospitals have Gideon Bibles in the bedside locker, – which have been very useful to many a visiting priest like me from a less evangelical tradition (ie, without a Bible constantly about my person…)
    I’m sorry they were so heavy handed for you.

  2. That’s a drag. I have been grateful a couple of times for the Gideon bible I’ve found in my hotel room – usually because I’m traveling and find myself with work to do but didn’t bother to pack my own bible. =)

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