By Elaine Chan, MSW, MDiv, BCC
In second grade I heard a story about the child Jesus from my parochial school teacher, Sister Antoinette of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. One day Jesus made some clay pigeons. When Jesus heard other children coming he gave the pigeons life so that they could fly away and not be destroyed. I have remembered this story all these years because I was impressed by Jesus’ great love and compassion. At the time I did not know the source of this story. Years later I read this story in the infancy gospel of Thomas as well as in the Quran. I would love to ask Sister Antoinette how she came upon the story, but alas she is now in heaven!
As a child I knew little about other sacred scriptures or faiths. But I have always had a curiosity and, I believe, a God-given desire to learn about the “other” since my parents are converts from Buddhism and I grew up in a Maryknoll parish. As a chaplain, I feel called to minister to individuals of all and no professed faiths. It is important to acknowledge and minister to non-Catholic patients as well as contacting other clergy of differing religions.
I try to maintain a directory of local clergy as well as organizing bodies for various faiths. I have made referrals to rabbis, imams, Buddhist monks, Hindu priests, Protestant ministers, Christian Orthodox priests, etc. Getting a clergy member to see a patient is not always easy, since there may be various issues involved, i.e. logistical – no Buddhist monk in immediate area of hospital, Orthodox priest needs transportation; timing – patient is critical or patient is getting transferred and clergy is not immediately available. There are also language, cultural and other issues within the same religion that one needs to be mindful of, i.e. Is the Muslim Sunni or Shiite and Conservative Jew vs. Orthodox Jew? One also needs to screen clergy to ensure that he or she is not there to proselytize or judge and is only coming to see the one patient and/or his/her family.
There are challenges but I keep trying because once in awhile a meaningful connection is made. Awhile back I conducted training for pastoral care volunteers, including an imam and his wife, an Orthodox rabbi, and other Christians. I utilized a curriculum developed by Michael Moran, an NACC member. One day the imam visited one of my Muslim patients. Even though the imam was “gowned up,” the patient recognized the imam who he had previously heard preach in his mosque!
Awhile back I had an Orthodox rabbi as a patient. He used to teach New Testament at a Jesuit school. On a subsequent visit he was diagnosed with kidney failure and needed dialysis. He was discouraged by this, since he was an active individual who frequently attended and gave lectures as well as participated in various activities. His work was his passion. Being hooked up to a machine three times a week for several hours meant he would not be able to do much. Also I learned that he was estranged from his children and grandchildren.
The rabbi told me that he wanted to die. He would stop taking his medications, eat less, and definitely not go to dialysis. Providentially, I had two chaplain interns for the summer and introduced them to him, an Orthodox rabbinical chaplain and a Roman Catholic religious sister. Coincidentally the sister is a member of Sister Antoinette’s community. The rabbi told them the same thing. I then left the two interns with him and came back awhile later. The rabbi then told me the time he had spent with them was the best experience he had had during his weeklong hospitalization. He was a teacher and having two students gave him purpose and joy! I felt God acting through the interns and myself to let the rabbi know that his life still had meaning. In ministering to non-Catholics as well as Catholics, I rely heavily on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
I am a Catholic chaplain and my primary focus is on Catholic patients, but over the years I have found that some non-Catholics who share the room with a Catholic are curious and/or desirous of spiritual attention and care. Mostly patients just want a listening ear and a compassionate heart. When I reach out to non-Catholics I witness to them as well as model to Catholics that the word “catholic” means universal. I have taken survey courses on different faiths as well as participated in various interfaith dialogues but I am still learning. One need not be an expert on every faith, just have an open heart to be present to the other and not debate issues of faith.
Providentially I attended seminary with Protestant classmates who daily shared their faith and prayer life with me. Also I attended interfaith dialogues with seminary students of other faiths. Patients appreciate that I know something about their faith and religious practices. One needs to be careful not to make assumptions or pass judgment on others’ beliefs. We cannot apply our perspectives, understandings and ways of looking at beliefs and practices unto others. For instance, Jews and Christians believe that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. But this is not found in the Muslim faith. Also we cannot put our faith on a higher level than others nor judge other faiths by our own.
I realize that chaplains are often pulled in various directions and may have limited time and energy to minister to those of their own faith. Also I know that pastoral care departments may not have the budget to compensate other clergy. But if someone of another faith has a need, I try my best to respond with compassion. I am reminded of the Gospel of Mark 7:24-30, in which Jesus was challenged to minister to the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman. At first he put her off but upon witnessing her faith, he cured the daughter. May God bless you and your ministry!
Elaine Chan is staff chaplain at New York Hospital in Queens, New York and is a new member of the NACC’s Editorial Advisory Panel.