Hospital chaplain racks up 515 days in volunteer hours

‘A ministry of presence’

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ROCKY MOUNT — Nash UNC Health Care recently posted its annual “Pastoral Care Chaplains with 500-plus Total Hours of Service” listing in the front lobby of Nash General Hospital. As of Dec. 31, Chaplain Mark Dickens remains at the top of the list with 12,367 hours — the equivalent of more than 515 days — volunteered in chaplaincy service to patients and families

In the decade since the hospital began tracking chaplaincy service hours, Dickens’s service time exceeds the combined hours accumulated by the chaplains with the second- and third-highest hours.

Dickens tells everyone, “It’s been a blessing to serve at this hospital because I just have a heart for people. Mine is a ministry of presence... being there for patients and families at their greatest times of need. It’s what chaplains do, and all of us see a lot of pain, distress, suffering, sadness, and sometimes, even anger.”

“I recall getting a call one Easter Monday morning at 1 a.m. to come to the hospital. It was my first year as a chaplain. The patient was a 12-year-old girl — same age as my own daughter — and this beautiful child was very sick and unable to breathe on her own. I was so upset I tried to turn in my hospital ID badge later that day — giving up on my role as a chaplain. After much prayer, I began to see this was something God had called me to do. It wasn’t my decision to make. That was over 20 years ago.”

“Even before I became a chaplain, one of my friends was involved in a car accident. I went in to see him and at the first sight of his blood, I nearly passed out. I came out of the room sweating profusely, but I’ve come a long way since then,” he added.

Dickens serves as a volunteer chaplain at Nash UNC Health Care in Rocky Mount, and while receiving no monetary compensation, says his ministry at the hospital has been spiritually profitable, beyond any material measure, or any earthly honor or award he could ever receive.

“I’m a chaplain to everyone, to people of all faiths. I love people and my desire is simply to draw beside patients and family. To be of real service, a chaplain must draw close, walk with these people during challenging times, feel what they’re feeling and cry their tears. As I said earlier, it’s not an easy job,” Dickens concluded.

“Mark honors the “spirit” of our patients, families, and staff,” said Danita Perkins, director of pastoral care at Nash UNC Health Care. “He knows how to bear witness to their struggles by encouraging them to explore their concerns and openly express their feelings without feeling rejected or judged. In other words, he knows how to make people feel heard and not alone; that makes him a loving, compassionate and effective chaplain.”

Dickens has also been serving as a law enforcement chaplain with the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office for more than 10 years. In that role, he is available to staff members, deputies and detention personnel for any matter concerning bereavement, health and wellness and counseling, plus home and hospital visits. Dickens is also promoting the “Shield a Badge with Prayer” program being offered by the N.C. Sheriffs Chaplain Association.

In addition, he pastors Holy Ghost Power of Deliverance & Restoration Ministries in Whitakers. His mother, Alice McKnight Dickens, started the church in 1990. Chaplain Dickens took over the role of pastor in 1991. Alice Dickens passed away three years ago after starting many churches in the area.

Dickens is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He joined when he was 18 and served for eight years. He and his wife, Trinette, have nine children together and three grandchildren. Dickens also filled in as a hospice chaplain with Nash Hospice in 2012.

When asked about hobbies, he answered: “Who’s got time for hobbies?”