Ample rays of southern California sunshine pour through the windows of the Veteran Affairs hospital, as Chaplain Michael A. Jones inspects the folding tables set up for the afternoon’s event. He’s been laboring for five years to reach this point, preparing for what he has billed as “90 Messengers in 90 Minutes.” Jones expects quite the turnout, having plastered notices around the hospital. It’s all part of Pastoral Care Week—an annual event that highlights the work of the chaplaincy within the VA system. And it’s the perfect chance for Jones to distribute Messengers en masse.
A chaplain for the past 12 years, Jones constantly seeks new ways to serve the veterans in his care. A friend from church who knew about the Messenger suggested that Jones start handing the devices out to his patients. But first there was the issue of approvals. Jones received immediate buy-in from the chief of chaplains, George B. Vogel. But he still had to get approval from Vogel’s supervisor, who asked if there was a cost to veterans. When Jones assured him there wasn’t, the supervisor said, “Can I get one of these?”
Jones gladly gave up the one he presented, knowing that the door was now open to many more Messengers, a product unlike anything the chaplains previously had available. They continue to give out plenty of devotional materials and Bibles, but this audio device has changed their ability to minister in a fundamental way. Patients who have difficulty reading can now listen to the Word of God at the touch of a button.
Back to the Beginning
Jones was born in 1951 at Queen of Angels Hospital, not far from where he grew up in Echo Park, Los Angeles. He was one of 13 children—his father, a widower, had five children when he remarried; Michael was the first of eight more.
As long as he’s been alive, Jones has had a connection to the military. “I always tell the vets, ‘The year I was born, my oldest brother went to Korea. When I graduated from high school, he went from Korea to Vietnam,’” he said. Most of his older sisters married men in the military. In fact, the first time Jones set foot in the Long Beach VA hospital was in 1967, to visit a patient: his brother-in-law. Despite all that experience, ministering to veterans wasn’t on his heart or mind. That would come decades later.
As a young man, Jones excelled at school, eventually enrolling at Los Angeles City College. But while there, he received disheartening news—a diagnosis of severe dyslexia. Six doctors told him he should give up pursuing a college degree. But a seventh, convinced Jones’s IQ was simply too high to quit, proposed a different idea: He should enroll as a blind student. “I had no vision problems,” Jones said. “I just couldn’t see print and I couldn’t write, so I became part of the disabled community.”
It worked. Given the right materials, Jones was able to succeed at school, testing higher than many of his peers. From City College, he went on to Long Beach State College and eventually to the Talbot School of Theology at Biola. It was in seminary that a professor told Jones to consider chaplaincy as a career. But God had a different route for him. Jones spent nearly two decades helping the disabled find jobs through Social Vocational Services, a company contracted by the government. He had no clue he was learning skills that would eventually help him with patients at the VA hospital, many of them facing the same issues as the people he previously assisted.
Twice each day, Jones and his colleagues receive an intake list from the hospital. Like doctors, chaplains are required to meet with every patient during the first 72 hours. A doctor once stopped Jones in the elevator. “How do you guys do it?” She wanted to know why four chaplains had a higher success rate for meeting patients than a team of physicians did: 81 percent to their 69 percent. His answer? Dogged persistence.
When Jones first started, he noticed a recurring pattern. After checking in, many veterans would disappear from their rooms. When doctors making their rounds ran into the same problem, they’d move to the next patient on the list. Jones decided instead to track them down.
“I’d go to the desk and ask, ‘Where’s the patient?’ The nurse would say, ‘Downstairs smoking.’” Clipboard in hand, Jones would search outside until he found that veteran. The chaplains now see all patients within 24 hours.
Jones’s assessment consists of a series of five questions. He’s asked them so many times they roll off his tongue: “Do you have a church or a religious affiliation? How often do you attend a service? Do you have any friends that you can talk to about spiritual things? Would you like a visit from a priest or chaplain? And would you like any type of devotional reading material?” To this last question he now adds, “We have Charles Stanley on an audio device, if you’re interested.” They usually are.
There’s a delicate balance VA chaplains must maintain, given their workplace is a government institution. For instance, Jones isn’t supposed to ask patients if they would like prayer—yet they ask him for it all the time, and he gladly agrees. He recounts being in a crowded elevator, when a voice called out from the back, “Excuse me. Are you a chaplain?” Jones said yes, turning to the man. “Then can you pray for me?”
Spreading the Word
Following his morning rounds, Jones heads for the hallway, where volunteers have already set out hundreds of items for veterans—Bibles, devotionals, books. It’s barely 11 a.m., and there’s already a line for the Messengers. For accounting purposes, Jones and his team must record the name of each veteran who receives one of the devices, though as always, they are free of charge, per the requirements of In Touch Ministries.
Jones quickly realized the value of a tool like the Messenger. Once, he asked a World War II veteran if he would like a Bible. The vet said sure, if it was large print. The chaplain returned and handed one to the man, who said, “I wondered why I stopped reading my Bible.” It was heavy—and he still couldn’t make out the text.
“That’s where the Messengers come in, because a lot of these guys complain about their eyes,” Jones said. “I can’t tell them to just go to the eye clinic. So I ask, ‘Would you like something in audio? We can give you the sermons of Charles Stanley and the New Testament. It has headphones and a wall plug and is also solar-powered, if you take it outside. It’s the size of a cell phone, and you won’t get a utility bill.’ Ninety percent of them are interested.”
Even for the hard of hearing, the Messenger has been a blessing. Jones had one patient who insisted on getting the device, despite having a hearing aid. He simply took it out of his ear, replacing it with the Messenger’s headphones. “He just turned the volume all the way up and he was happy,” Jones said.
Shortly after he started handing the Messengers out, Jones ran into problems with them—perhaps better classified as “user errors.” Many of the patients forgot how to operate the device, and others often misplaced theirs. Jones started taping each patient’s name to the back, which helped, but he was fielding too many phone calls from nurses unfamiliar with the device. So Jones gave the nurses training about what the Messengers are and how to use them. It didn’t take long for the number of calls to drop.
Back at the tables, Jones and his team begin distributing Messengers a little earlier than expected. The stream of veterans is steady—young and old, some in wheelchairs and some with walkers, all having served their country. Jones insists on providing them something priceless in return: access to the Word of God. And it turns out “90 Messengers in 90 Minutes” was actually 96 Messengers in less than an hour. Several more went to staff members who were intrigued by the device.
Jones intends for Pastoral Care Week to expand. “Each year we keep refining what we’re doing, and in my mind it’s still about customer service. We add value regardless of where we are. I mean, the Prodigal Son’s father added value to his boy’s life. He looked out at the road and saw his son, and what did he do? He turned around and told the servants to prepare a banquet.” And looking around, Jones is doing just that—welcoming all who come to receive.
Photography by Ben Rollins