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SXU Professor Willie Cobb Gives Back as Hospital Chaplain


Saint Xavier University's (SXU) Willie Cobb, adjunct professor of theology, has been giving back to the community for years, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made his work as a hospital chaplain needed more than ever before.

 Cobb didn't always plan to be a chaplain. While studying for his Master of Divinity in 2012, Cobb was required to complete a chaplaincy pastoral education unit. He was not interested and even tried to get out of it, but he had no idea how greatly chaplaincy would impact his life. On his very first night of chaplaincy, he worked alone supporting a 16-year-old who was six months pregnant and having difficult during labor. Fortunately, the mother and child were okay, but his first experience of chaplain support is what continues to draw him to chaplaincy.

In his eight years of chaplaincy, Cobb describes the COVID-19 pandemic as one of the worst times he's ever seen, with people struggling in every single area of the hospital. These days, Cobb's work is a little different. He spends his time checking hospital charts to see who's passed away and calling families of the deceased to offer them support and help with the funeral process. Since Cobb cannot visit patients directly, he calls them frequently to check on them, and because no one can visit their loves ones in the hospital, he calls the patients' families to offer support.

He also serves as support for hospital staff and administration. "When people talk about front line workers, they forget there are other people working in the hospital who need support as well. One of our part-time nursing supervisors recently passed from COVID-19, and making sure her friends at the hospital have the support they need is one of my responsibilities," said Cobb.

As a Black chaplain, Cobb stresses the importance of being aware of how hard COVID-19 is hitting the Black population in Chicago, and that the lack of resources in inner-city communities can severely impact health care. "The fact is, many African Americans are frightened of going to the doctor because of a negative history with the medical profession, and this can be detrimental to the health of a Black community," said Cobb.

Cobb recalls one of his own negative experiences. "In 2012, I went to my primary care physician and told him I had severe stomach pain, felt depressed and needed time off work. He told me there was no way he could give me time off work, did not ask me questions and did not care about my physical or emotional well-being. I went back a few weeks later to explain I still had pain in my stomach, and he sent me for a colonoscopy but did not review it for an entire year. A year later, I was still in desperate pain and now had depression and other serious issues, and this is an experience that a lot of African Americans have had for hundreds of years. Professionals have not taken the African American community seriously when it comes to their health," said Cobb, urging the community to get educated and learn about these issues to help combat the inequities in African American health care.

"The African American community has tremendous lessons to teach the world right now. The real question is if the rest of our society in the world is ready to finally listen to the lesson that the Black community has to teach us. Lessons like how to overcome tremendous oppression, decompression and alienation and understanding how these communities have survived such situations in the past will help us to understand how to survive today," added Cobb.

While Cobb has only taught at SXU for one semester, he's very much enjoyed working with the students in his theology class. Cobb spent the last semester teaching about marginalization in the Catholic Church throughout history, and though he considers his class controversial, he finds his students to be very excited and enthused. Cobb also shares his chaplaincy experiences in the classroom, as for him, ministry happens anywhere and everywhere.

 Cobb was drawn to the Saint Xavier mission because educating, "searching for truth, thinking critically and communicating effectively with compassion and human dignity" is part of his personal philosophy. Part of his goal in life is to educate as many people as possible on race and racism, spirituality, understanding suffering and other topics. "It is simply my mission in life to serve wisely and compassionately and help people find the common good. I've dedicated my ministry to this service. My spirituality starts with holy hospitality, being open to all people and educating for God's kingdom."

Cobb encourages those working and learning remotely to help out by doing things like making masks, donating food to hospitals and staff workers and praying. "One of the most important things people can do to help is to take care of people in their own community. Reach out by telephone to call community organizations and see if you can reach people who are alone in this crisis."

He also reminds the community to stay alert, realistic and sensitive to the plights of others. "Society loves to say we're all in this together, but that's simply not true. We're in this together by degrees. Some on the front lines put their lives at risk every single second they're working, and some go in and clean up after a person has passed and put their lives in jeopardy. No, we are not in this together. We can and must provide support for the people whose lives are at risk."

Cobb acknowledges that the worldwide struggle is tangible and that many are feeling overwhelmed and depressed. He encourages people to avoid letting the grief and mourning set in by doing something good for themselves and for someone else. "Play your favorite song, talk to family and friends over the internet, let yourself stay happy and be filled with joy in these dark times. Never give up, and don't let the struggles overwhelm you to the point where you feel you can’t reach out to other people."

When asked what advice he has for those looking to connect with their spirituality during this difficult time, Cobb encourages the community to speak out to God and reach out to others. "Spirituality is vital. Now is not the time to give up on your faith or turn away from God. Now is the time to turn to God in prayer. We can reconnect our spirituality by letting go and letting God, learning the lessons of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who simply wanted to vote and was brutalized, ostracized and even molested by people trying to stop her from voting. Call on the angels and the saints and ask them to help. Turn inward as much as outward toward others, and remember, God hears every prayer on your heart and in your mind."

Cobb wants the SXU community to know that his work is the work that is in the hearts of others. He finds the SXU community to be loving and compassionate. "While it's my job to help people want to live even in the worst moments of their lives, I'm impressed with how this community wants the same. Caring about others is what a chaplain does and caring about others is what this community does. I want them to know that I am here, so let's see how we can help one another."