Meet the Rev. Cheryl Cuddy (ChIME 2016), a nontraditional student (read force of nature) who has become a nontraditional chaplain (read handmaiden of Spirit).
A high school graduate, mother of seven, and grandmother of fourteen, Rev. Cheryl followed up her ChIME ordination the first weekend in June by hosting 250 guests at her daughter’s wedding, then received her Spiritual and Pastoral Care Certification from Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) the next weekend. That summer she waited for Spirit’s next nudge.
“I knew I was a chaplain when I was 5 years old,” Cheryl says. “I believe chaplaining is an innate quality that seminary and ChIME built on. My teachers and classmates created an avenue for me to take what I know in my heart to be true about myself and showed me, ‘This is what you can do with that!’”
When a gunman opened fire on a crowd of Las Vegas concertgoers in October 2017, leaving 58 people dead and hundreds injured, Cheryl just knew she had to be there. Even though flying frightens her and she’d not been on a plane in years, Rev. Cheryl was on the next plane out of Portland. She has a son in Las Vegas, and had just performed a wedding for a young couple who live there. She had people to be with, and had been trained to provide spiritual care after community disasters, but wasn’t sure precisely how she could be of use.
“Where can I be? How can I help? How do I fit in?” Cheryl asked herself. The day after her arrival, Cheryl recalls, “I asked my son to just drop me off at the Trauma Center. I called the chaplain there and he told me that there was nothing officially I could do, but then he added ‘I can’t stop you from sitting in the cafeteria, on the benches outside, or in the waiting rooms.’ I’ll never forget his kindness in letting me do that.”
“I ended up sitting with families,” Cheryl continues, “by just gently placing myself in the room, or on the bench. I sat with people and held them until my shoulders were drenched in tears. I listened and listened to the sobs and the pain. There were countless hugs. The next day I went back to the Trauma Center, and then the third day I went to the space where a memorial was being created. It was so hot and so dirty and so powerful. Mothers and fathers and friends were sobbing in my arms, praying and holding hands. I couldn’t change anything. All I could do was show up.”
Here’s where the mother of seven showed up as an expert delegator. “I called the young couple I’d married and said we needed tissues and water. They showed up with a big cooler. The Boy Scouts handed around the water and boxes of tissues, and so did the bride and groom,” Cheryl says with a big smile.
“Two months ago I saw on TV a young woman who had been shot in the head and was finally released home to her husband and children. I had sat with her whole extended family and prayed with them. The doctors had said she wouldn’t make it. But she’s home now.”
Sometimes there is hierarchy, even in the world of Spirit. Chaplains, however, recognize one another in the thick of service. A Las Vegas police chaplain gave Cheryl his badge, and she worked right alongside FBI chaplains. The Billy Graham organization also enfolded Rev. Cuddy. “Transparency was key,” Cheryl recalls. “I said ‘I’m not associated with any organization.’ I just showed up “naked and empty,” as I’d learned to do at ChIME.”
“After day 3 I went home to my son’s house and said ‘I’m done.’ I knew to practice self-care, and that it’s OK to say ‘I’m tapped out, I’ve done all I can do.’ I truly knew in my heart that I wasn’t finished, but I had done my work for now. Now someone else would step in. I took the train home, and spent the days crossing the US alone in my cabin, resting, writing, even taking my meals there. And after a week or so at home I was back to my family self.”
Looking back on her Las Vegas experience six months later, Cheryl says with characteristic humility, “I’m not sure what my presence did for the families I served, but it made a huge difference to me. I now know I don’t have to be some world-renowned clergy person to be of service. I can just show up as I am. Those families that sat and drenched my shoulders in tears were meeting a human being. It’s so organic. You might have a minute and a half together. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.”
What happens in the course of a normal week for Rev. Cuddy now is funerals, end-of-life visits to hospitals, volunteering with hospice, offering grief groups, and counselling couples who’ve asked her to marry them. She just finished taking the Death Doula program offered by UVM, and feels there’s more school in her future, and also more service that hasn’t yet taken a clear shape. She waits for the nudge from Spirit.
“There comes a point when your whole being sits down and understands that ‘I am a chaplain. I have the pastoral authority to move as a chaplain.’ It’s very frightening when you’re a student, and there were many times going through ChIME that I doubted myself,” Cheryl says. “Then during my final classes the awareness came, and (ChIME’s Abbess) Patricia (Ellen) validated my calling by saying, ‘Yes, you are a chaplain.’ That was a beautiful feeling.”