Mark Chaffin began his adult life thinking he might like to teach history to young children, but that’s not the way things turned out.
Instead, as interfaith chaplain for the Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Scotia, Chaffin took a different path. For the past 15 years, he has dedicated his life to a much older clientele. And, as depressing as end-of-life issues can get at the Route 50 facility, Chaffin doesn’t second-guess his career choice for a second.
“We deal with people making very serious decisions, but that’s the sort of thing that energizes me,” said Chaffin. “It’s a very difficult time for people, but I get to be part of a team that does their best to try to make things easier on people, as well as their families. That’s what makes it so gratifying, and that’s why I do it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Born in Boston and raised in central Connecticut, Chaffin started his spiritual journey as a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church. After attending college at North Park University in Chicago, he became a Seventh-day Adventist. After some more college study at Atlantic Union College and then Andover Newton Theological School, he was eventually ordained as an American Baptist.
“I spent 10 years getting my feet wet with ministry in an urban setting,” said Chaffin, referring to his experience in Chicago. “I don’t have one evangelical bone now, and I became very interested in the Seventh-day Adventists because they were very keen on a healthy lifestyle and engaging people in making good lifestyle choices about cardiac-friendly diet and exercise.”
Though ordained while working in Scotia by the Latham Community Baptist Church, adhering to strict doctrine isn’t what Chaffin is all about.
“I attend Emmanuel Baptist in Albany because it’s important that I go somewhere that has a diverse congregation,” said Chaffin, who lives in Lansingburgh. “There is ethnic and racial diversity there, and people are dealing with urban issues. It’s also a welcoming and affirming congregation that embraces people of various sexual orientations, so I think it’s very appropriate that I involve myself with them and partner in their ministry.”
Pushing his religion onto anyone at Baptist Health isn’t a part of Chaffin’s program.
“Chaplaincy is about meeting people at their point of need,” he said. “My mission is agenda-less. When I approach people, it might be very clear that they really don’t have a religious background or any interest in going there. But I make it clear we don’t have to engage on those topics. We can talk about the Red Sox and the Yankees or any issue they want to discuss. A lot of people just want to talk about their history, and I think what they really need is a good listening to.”
During the holiday season, Chaffin’s job can get particularly difficult, but he seems up to the challenge.
“Some people are divorced and don’t have much of a family, or they’re going through various other kinds of losses,” he said. “It doesn’t help when they feel emotionally out of sync with the rest of the culture, but we do what we can. We have carolling groups that come through, and we have holiday parties, also for our Jewish residents and other faiths, too.”
The sadness that at times seems to permeate the hallways at Baptist Health doesn’t seem to effect Chaffin.
“I’m a compartmentalizer,” said Chaffin, who is divorced and has two teenage children. “I guess I do it fairly well, and it is pretty intrinsic to the training of a chaplain. I’m dealing with a lot of emotionally laden issues, grief being the chief emotion among them. So it does take some work in terms of self-care, and when we can, we try to keep things light and breezy. We do a lot of celebrating here.”
“Light and breezy,” however, is not how his colleagues would describe him.
“Mark is a very deep, still river,” said Ruth Tietz, director of marketing and public relations for Baptist Health Systems, the group that owns and operates Baptist Health Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. “He commands a presence without saying a whole lot, and he has a level of compassion about him that is exceptional in this day and age.”
When Tietz’s own mother died earlier this year, Chaffin officiated at the memorial service.
“He does a lot of wonderful things for our residents and patients, and he also goes the extra mile for the staff here,” said Tietz. “He’s a very exceptional guy.”
Loved and respected
Scotia resident Elsie Maddaus, a longtime volunteer at Baptist Health, said Chaffin is loved and respected by everyone at the facility.
“I think he understands old people and sick people, and he doesn’t preach over their heads,” said Maddaus. “He’s very well organized. They couldn’t have found a better person for that position.”
Among Chaffin’s many duties is leading a Thursday worship service, which Maddaus regularly attends.
“I shouldn’t say this, but sometimes they get someone else to lead the service and some of the people fall asleep,” said Maddaus. “That doesn’t happen when Mark is preaching. You feel like he’s talking to you, individually, and he gets you involved in what he’s saying. He really understands the kind of people that are living here, and people really appreciate that.”
When Chaffin isn’t at work, his life away from Baptist Health is busy. “I’m shuttling kids to track meets, soccer matches and guitar lessons,” he said. “I also participate in a men’s club at the Moon & River Café and I also do a lot of choral singing.”
And, as you might expect, some of his activities outside the job are related to his faith.
“I’m an advocate around issues of hunger, and I’m constantly advocating for the farm bill,” he said. “I’m also writing a book about wisdom, so my life is pretty full.”