The Rev. Sweet Featured in the Houston Chronicle for Work at Houston Hospice Center

Hands of hospice workers blessed in prayerful ceremony

Author: Allan Turner
Photographer: Eric Kayne

This piece originally appeared on the Houston Chronicle, here.

At first glance, there was nothing extraordinary about the hands at the Houston Hospice blessing service. They were hands, calloused perhaps, with five fingers each. But these, those gathered at the center's Cockrell Chapel insisted, were very special. They were hands in service to God, helping the terminally ill ease into a peaceful death.

The Interfaith Blessing of Hands - the second year of the event - was simple. A double line of nurses and other hospice workers formed as Chaplain Gordon Robertson and the Rev. Portia Sweet, a volunteer chaplain, said a quiet prayer, dabbed crocheted prayer cloths in lavender-scented oil and gently swabbed the supplicants' palms.

'What we do is a calling'

The ritual was only 15 minutes, but moving.

"Holy God," Sweet intoned as the last of some 30 hospice workers settled into their seats, "we ask you to bless our use of this oil today. May its fragrance be a symbolic offering of what is pleasing to you. May its texture remind us that the soothing work of our hands is also pleasing to you."

Nothing is more holy, Sweet observed later, "than holding the hand of someone as they transition from this world to the next."

Founded in 1980, Houston Hospice was the first such end-of-life care facility in Houston. Today, headquartered in the old Tudor-style mansion of former Mayor Oscar Holcombe in the Texas Medical Center, the hospice serves 10 area counties.

"This is a big major deal," said Janet Snyder, a licensed vocational nurse who was among those attending the first of three Wednesday blessings. "A lot we actually do here is very special work."

"What we do is a calling," added Dinicesar Fitts, another LVN.

Expanding tradition

Robertson noted that such blessings of hands have become a tradition in many medical institutions.

"I just wanted to recognize and affirm for our staff, volunteers and family members the work that they are doing with their hands," the chaplain said. "So much comes through our hands."

Robertson, a Roman Catholic deacon, described their work with the dying and their families as a "gift."

"We receive a gift when other people allow us to care for them," he said. "If you can spend time with a person, just being present, just doing that can let you witness to them. It's just the act of being with another human being. Not that you can change it. Not that you can make it go away. But just to enter into it with them."

While many who attended the services were health care providers, the blessings also extended to staffers who answer telephones, mop and polish, deal with vendors and offer tissue to grieving families. "Blessed be the hands that prepare meals with care and love for others to enjoy," the prayer observed. "Blessed be the hands that guide those who do not know their way."

Hands tell stories

Robertson said he was struck by the meaning the ceremony holds for hospice workers. A staff member who attended last year, the chaplain said, "told me she kept the little hand-crocheted prayer cloth. Every morning, she wakes up and uses it in her prayers."

At a previous job in a Medical Center hospital, Robertson said the blessing was performed with cotton balls, which later were discarded. He said he opted to use the crocheted prayer cloths - technically they are "face scrubbies," purchased online - because they were the product of skilled and caring hands.

Each bore a one-line prayer attached with a safety pin: "May the work of your hands bring good to all the people you touch and the services you provide."

"These are caring holy hands," Sweet told the group, as staff members in the chapel held out and examined their hands. "Look at their veins, the wrinkles. Think of all they have touched, all they have carried. Being there for others is what we're all about."