Pastor sketches, shares life with hospice patients

9/14/2014

Rev. Arnie Raj is as comfortable at a patient’s bedside as he is behind a pulpit.

With a registered nurse for a father and a grandfather who was a preacher in India, it is fitting that he would combine the two professions in his chosen career.

A chaplain at Ogeechee Area Hospice, a not-for-profit hospice serving Bulloch and surrounding counties, Rev. Raj provides critical spiritual support and care for patients facing end of life issues.

Growing up in Dublin, Rev. Raj watched his father serve patients at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center for 30 years.

“I was used to seeing people in a medical setting and I really thought that might be where I’d fit in,” he said.

Raised by deeply faithful parents, Rev. Raj has always been interested in religion. His calling to enter into full-time ministry was crystalized while studying it in college. One of Rev. Raj’s cousins – Billy Graham Raj – was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary and invited him to visit and take a summer class.

“I really felt God telling me to go for it,” Rev. Raj said. “So I did … and it really put in my mind that this is what I wanted to do. It just seemed like the right thing for me.”

After graduating from the University of Georgia he headed to Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo. From there he worked at hospitals in Columbus and Atlanta before settling closer to home.

It was while working at Vidalia’s Community Hospice that Rev. Dennis Lanning, then pastor of Mount Vernon UMC, occasionally asked Rev. Raj to fill in and preach. When Rev. Lanning was appointed to Albany’s Avalon United Methodist Church, Rev. Raj was asked to pastor the Long Pond and Mount Vernon UMC congregations.

“I really never thought I’d go into the pulpit,” Rev. Raj said. “It’s funny how things happen.”

Serving in a dual role – hospice chaplain and pastor – for a little more than three years has given Rev. Raj a unique perspective on ministry.

That perspective has helped him better connect with and minister to his congregants and the patients he serves.

Connecting with prayer and pen

Drawing is one of Rev. Raj’s passions, and for years he thought he’d become a full-time artist. He even studied graphic design at Savannah College of Art and Design for one year.

Today he uses his hobby and talent to bond with his hospice patients.

“I love to draw, to draw people and paint, and it’s something that I have been doing for years and years,” he said. “For me, it’s one more way to connect with patients.”

He spent a recent morning sketching a 99-year-old patient who had never before had his portrait drawn. During their conversation he shared with Rev. Raj what it was like growing up during the Great Depression.

“A lot of what we do is verbal, just talking with one another, but some folks aren’t able to really talk, so this is a different way to communicate,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a quiet time that we spend together. It’s casual and informal and they’re able to share.”

Those sketches and conversations have been so meaningful and impactful that Rev. Raj wanted to share them with others. He recently published his drawings and snippets of conversations in an e-book, “Life sketches from Hospice.”

Rev. Raj’s experiences working with hospice patients has shaped his pastoral ministry, too.

“It reminds you every day how precious life is,” he said. “It has taught me to be present with folks in whatever is going on. They need you in that moment and that’s the important thing.”

Sharing life with others, whether in hospice or at Long Pond or Mount Vernon UMCs, is deeply gratifying and is a way for Rev. Raj to live out his calling.

“It’s been a blessing to walk with folks through these times in their lives.”