Eric, age 20, checked into a Holiday Inn in downtown Chicago. He had gone home from work earlier that day to find his suitcase on the front steps, his wife and mother-in-law barring the door. In despair, he had gulped down a handful of sleeping pills, but they induced vomiting instead of death. Panicky, looking for some other way out, Eric spotted the words “Chaplain on Call” and a phone number next to the Gideon Bible in a bedstand drawer.
The chaplain on call at his suburban Chicago home was the Rev. Gordon Clarke. “It would have done no good to have gone in with an open Bible or a sermon,” observes Clarke, 45, who raced to the motel. “I went in with an open ear.” It worked. Eric gradually came out of his suicidal mood and in the months since, though unable to rebuild his marriage, has settled down enough to earn a high school equivalency diploma. Clarke, the father of two sons in their early 20s, still meets Eric occasionally for lunch.
Like the Chicago motel, nearly all of the more than 1,700 Holiday Inns keep a chaplain on call, and other chains are adopting the idea. The Rev. W.A. Nance, chaplain to Holiday Inns corporate headquarters in Memphis, dreamed up the notion of room-service religion six years ago. Clarke, who was then working for the Indiana Council of Churches, became his first recruit. Chaplains work for no pay and receive about a dozen calls a year. They are of various faiths. Clarke is a Quaker and on Sundays the pulpit minister at St. John United Church of Christ in Palatine, Ill. He has just supervised the $21,000 renovation of the interior of the 130-year-old church that raises its graceful spire at the edge of a forest preserve. During the week he works on the staff of the American Bible Society in Chicago.
Clarke admits to one frustration peculiar to his ministry. “We like to help people find solid solutions, but most of them are moving on tomorrow.” At the same time Clarke knows that this is precisely why the typically moody drunks, sparring couples or potential suicides call in the first place. “They know that, unlike their own ministers, we will never see them again. We’re not a threat.”