Ten years ago, as a high school student, Samantha Erschen wept under starlit skies as she tried to make sense of the overwhelming adversity she witnessed while on a parish mission trip to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
She wondered aloud to Jon Metz, her youth minister, why these children grew up among alcoholism, abuse and neglect, while she enjoyed unconditional love, security, education and a strong Catholic faith.
“He told me, ‘Sam, God is planting a seed in your heart. You can choose to forget about this seed upon your return home, or you can water this seed and let it grow,’” Erschen explained. “It was at that moment that I knew I was going to dedicate my life to God to make a change in the world by attending college when I was old enough, study theology, and do what I could to let that seed grow.”
While attending Cardinal Stritch University, Erschen participated in the Religious Scholars Vocation Program, which provided her with intense ministerial formation. Her mentor, Sean Lybeck-Smoak, encouraged her to take another path for the year-long internships, during the final two years of her program.
“I was 19 years old, wanting to do youth ministry, and I heard my mentor tell me ‘no’ because I needed to step outside my comfort zone for growth,” she said. “I asked myself the reasoning of why I love the youth. My heart answered that the youth are voiceless in this society, so I thought and prayed and asked myself, who else are voiceless? That’s when it dawned on me – the elderly.”
Internship opens unexpected door
Erschen began an internship in visitation ministry to the sick and homebound, which later bridged to an internship in hospice chaplaincy for two years, after which she discovered her calling in journeying with people through some of the most emotionally challenging times of their lives. She graduated from Cardinal Stritch in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and religious studies; and a master’s degree in ministry in 2011.
At 24, the Pewaukee native is one of the youngest chaplains in the United States and the youngest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Her role as chaplain at St. Camillus Community in Wauwatosa is to care for the souls of the community’s residents.
Connecting souls not generational
Those residents, most of whom are 80 and older, taught the St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee, parishioner one of the most valuable lessons she has learned in her life: Death is not the enemy and aging is not to be feared.
A letter to young people
Greetings young ones,
The members of the St. Camillus Assisted Living Bible Study: age range of 77-98 years of life experience
The white-haired, stooped women and men who slowly walk the halls of St. Camillus might, at first, regard Erschen, with her light brown hair, blue eyes and deferential manner, as more like a granddaughter than a spiritual advisor. But, quickly, they realize that connecting souls bypasses all generations.
“My job as chaplain is to journey with people through this stage of life with the ups and downs of growing old and dying,” she said. “I firmly believe that regardless of the stage of life, or abilities, each person needs purpose to maintain a strong relationship with God. When a person enters assisted living, they lose much of their independence, and have many people serve them. It is not until they, too, serve that they find purpose, and strengthen their faith. I wrote my master of arts ministry final paper on this topic. Along with holding their hands as they leave this earth and enter eternal life, praying with them, and being of support for family, I also enjoy providing opportunities for the residents here to serve.”
Mission trips provide inspiration
Among the opportunities to serve, she includes residents in creating cards for soldiers serving in the Middle East, conducting international missions through painting wooden Christmas masks for orphans in Costa Rica, or participating in an Easter picture exchange with children of the Guatemala City Garbage Dump. The latter two locations were the sites of volunteer mission trips that Erschen took.
“We also illustrate biblical storybooks for the memory care units on campus, make crafts for those ‘sicker than ourselves’ in skilled nursing, and facilitate bereavement ministry where we make sympathy cards for the families of our neighbors who die,” she explained. “We also create thank you cards for the staff members who care for them, organize children’s ministry where we give love to the children from our attached day care while our parents work. And we lead ‘Living Stations of the Cross’ on Good Friday for the whole St. Camillus/San Camillo community where the residents act out the passion of the Christ.”
Residents share wisdom, experience
In addition to finding purpose through outreach, the residents participate in prayer and rosary services throughout the year, and share their experiences and wisdom in a weekly, one-hour Bible study that Erschen started after she began her ministry at St. Camillus three years ago.
“We study a pericope and share wisdom of how that passage relates to our life,” she said. “The Bible study started as three or four people with a mix of different Bibles and translations. After (being) granted permission to buy the same Bible in large print, (the Bible study) has grown to average 15 residents each week. We close with a contemporary Praise and Worship song, which the residents enjoy.”
During one of the Bible studies, Erschen led a discussion on Paul’s letter writing style. As a group, they wrote a letter to young people about the world as they see it today. (See accompanying sidebar.)
Some of the most intimate moments occur in times of trials for the residents, such as the experience of grief and loss. To handle those difficult moments, Erschen leads a discussion on the feelings of grief and, together, they journey through each challenge.
‘Wisdom visits’ lead to life lessons
“One other intimate spiritual experience with our residents occurs with what I call ‘wisdom visits.’ This is where I visit each resident individually and request him or her to share with me the wisdom they have learned throughout their life. I quickly write, recording the incredible insight each person here has to offer, provoked by questions, such as, ‘What did your parents teach you?’ and ‘Tell me about difficult times in life – what did you learn from them?’” explained Erschen. “In each visit, I have found that spirituality cannot be separated from life stories and wisdom. Through helping the elderly find purpose, I find purpose in life.”
Recently, Erschen received the Cardinal Stritch G.O.L.D. (Graduate Of the Last Decade) Award. In addition, she has received other awards for her work, including Employee of the Year in Customer Service in 2010 for her outstanding service at St. Camillus.
That same year, she also was recognized by Divine Savior Holy Angels High School as its Young Alumna of the Year, recognizing her exemplary leadership in society. In 2009 she also was the recipient of Stritch’s Pace e Bene award, given to students who incorporate Stritch’s mission into their personal, spiritual and faith lives.
While honored by the awards, Erschen takes no credit for them. Instead, she gives credit to those who have invested their time and talent to help her find her vocation, grow closer to God and become the woman she is.
“I have been blessed with many mentors and coaches along the path of life thus far,” she said. “I listen to their feedback and advice, as well as where God calls me, and that has directed me to intense professional ministry. I hope these awards are seen as a reflection of the love others have given me throughout my life, and the openness I have to learning, as an example to other young people. When you are open and listen to God, God will take you on a wild adventure. I never imagined working as a geriatric chaplain when I was 19 years old.”
Shares God’s love daily
Most important to Erschen is the opportunity to share God’s love with others in her daily life and work.
“Everyone needs love, regardless of stage or phase of life. The elderly, at the end stages of their lives here on Earth, often become abandoned, and need even more love,” she explained. “They are the wisdom of our society, and yet, often the forgotten. It is my job to journey with them, providing them my undivided attention and presence, and offer the love of Christ.”
Without the strong presence of Christ in her own life, Erschen believes she would be unable to enjoy her vocation and share his love with others.
“I believe that when a person does not follow where God calls them, they will not find complete fulfillment,” she said. “Each person has unique talents and passions given by God. When these are followed, fulfillment in everyday life becomes achieved.”