TUPELO • Mike Talbert is a volunteer chaplain at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo. When he walks into a hospital room to minister to a patient, he never knows exactly what to expect.
“It can be anyone,” the 74-year-old Oxford native said. “From a 15-year-old kid to an elderly person. They just need someone to talk to, to pray with, and to be reassured of God’s presence.”
Talbert said in times of extremity, many people need flesh-and-blood ‘incarnational ministry’ more than abstract religious information.
“Somewhere in there, it’s not enough for it to just be you and God,” he said. “You need a representative, a live human voice that says ‘I came here in the name of Jesus.’ I never knew how much people need that.”
Talbert identifies himself as a ‘practical Catholic,’ but he said denominational labels fall away in times of crisis.
“I don’t like to use the term ‘Catholic,’” he said. “I say, ‘I don’t have a brand name. I’m here in the name of the one on that cross.’ Most people aren’t interested in that anyway, but if they ask, of course I tell them.”
Before he became a man of the cloth, Talbert was a man of words. Talbert’s father, Samuel Stubbs Talbert, was the one-time chairman of the University of Mississippi’s journalism department. Following in his father’s footsteps, Talbert wrote for the Daily Journal for nearly 30 years, including 15 years covering sports, before his retirement in 1997.
Talbert said his own faith-journey has been a long and winding one.
“I was a Sunday-only Catholic for way too long,” he said. “The church was a pretty house across the road, but beyond being an occasional usher, I wasn’t involved.”
He said a serendipitous post-journalism search for meaning led him to his eventual role as a hospital chaplain.
“God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “I wanted to go into physical therapy, but that didn’t work out. I worked in the emergency room for a few years and then we moved to Eupora and I worked for Wood College. I got really involved with Glenmary, the little Catholic mission in Eupora.”
Through his involvement at Glenmary, Talbert was invited to participate in a graduate program in pastoral care offered through Loyola University in New Orleans.
“I got my master’s degree from the Loyola Institute of Ministry when I was 65,” he said. “I asked them if I was the oldest graduate. They said, ‘Not by a long shot.’”
Talbert said one book in particular helped form his practice as a chaplain.
“Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Wounded Healer’ is one of the most powerful books I ever read,” he said. “It’s a testimony to the necessity and value of personal pain as a teacher. It’s so important, when you walk into these hospital rooms, to know that you’re wounded, too.”
Talbert said most of the patients he sees have requested a chaplain’s visit, but he has occasional encounters that are less well-received.
“We live in an age where spirituality is scoffed at,” he said. “I’ve ministered to atheists, which is interesting. Most atheists are mad at the God they don’t believe in. When I’m in that situation I just say, ‘I’m here as a minister, but let’s just talk.’”
Talbert said sometimes a listening ear is more important than wise words.
“Most people just need to talk and they need someone to listen,” he said. “Sadly, many of them are not served well, even by their own churches. I try to keep myself out of it and just be present for whatever they need. That presence is a form of prayer, and we’re praying together the whole time the person is talking.”
While most hospital patients need to talk, Talbert said many of his encounters are with people who are unable to do so.
“I work in CCU a lot,” he said. “You can never assume someone can’t hear you, that they don’t know you’re there and that they’re not hungry for a word from God. I’ve found that if you recite the Lord’s Prayer or the twenty-third Psalm, a lot of people will show some kind of muscular response.”
While he makes no claims to be an artist, Talbert said he sometimes makes quick sketches of angels to leave behind, as a reminder of his visit, and of what it represents.
“I’ve probably drawn hundreds of them by now,” he said. “I think it’s Psalm 91 that says, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.’ People need to hear that.”