By Fr. Freddy Ocun and Melinda A. Smith
Chaplains take pride in developing cultural and religious competencies and providing spiritual and emotional support to individuals from all faith traditions. But sometimes support from the patient’s own faith community can offer comfort, provide sacramental support, and address existential issues with a depth of experience not immediately available to a hospital chaplain. Particularly in times of crisis or disaster, it is helpful for chaplain staff to have ongoing relationships of mutual trust with community clergy and interfaith leaders.
At Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, OR, our Pastoral Services team works with community clergy from different faith traditions whose support often is requested by patients and their families. These clergy visit the hospital weekly, upon request, to attend to a patient’s spiritual and emotional needs. In case of a hospital or community disaster, these relationships and contacts are available to mobilize interfaith support and resources.
However, these relationships benefit patients and their families in many other ways. A visit from their own religious tradition represents a connection with a wider faith community when patients are experiencing crisis, isolation, or distance from their customary faith support. This experience can be particularly acute for patients from immigrant communities. Individuals in crisis, facing a difficult diagnosis, or at the end of life might begin to reconsider a long-abandoned spiritual identity and wish to reconnect with a faith tradition. In a disaster situation, when individuals’ homes, families, and communities might be threatened, connection with a leader from their own tradition might provide comfort and safety.
Initiating and maintaining these community relationships take time. At Providence St. Vincent, one member of the Pastoral Services staff serves as interfaith liaison for the department, maintaining the list of community clergy contacts, keeping in touch with faith leaders by phone, and coordinating referrals for patients who request visits. The liaison chaplain maintains a relationship with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and attends monthly meetings of the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland. Participation in these community organizations allows Pastoral Services to talk about the spiritual needs and experiences of various faith groups. It also allows us to show the greater interfaith community the hospital’s investment in caring for individuals from all religious traditions. The hospital also partners with a nearby Presbyterian church that has agreed to serve as a place of shelter for hospital patients and staff in case of a large-scale community disaster.
All staff chaplains take responsibility for talking with clergy when they are present in the hospital, for noting their visits in patient charts, and for providing them with collaborative feedback. Steve Bleak, a Latter Day Saints faith leader who has served as a community clergy visitor at Providence St. Vincent for eight years, highly values the relationships formed with chaplains and staff. “I have felt the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ in our collaboration with Pastoral Services Director Father Freddy and his fellow chaplains,” he wrote to us. “There is a certain friendship in this service that has filled my heart with love and joy as we have visited the members of our church. Never have I experienced a negative moment.”
Kirk Kennedy, another LDS community clergy visitor, adds that he appreciates being part of Providence St. Vincent’s integration of faith and medicine at every level of care. Both see Providence St. Vincent’s commitment to collaborating with diverse faith groups as foundational to providing good care in the community — at times of individual crisis as well as community disaster. The hospital also benefits from similar collaborative relationships with local Muslim and Jewish faith leaders, as well as other faith communities.
As part of the disaster preparedness plan, Pastoral Services participates in the Incident Assessment Team and coordinates a family resource center that provides information and offers spiritual support for patients and family affected by the disaster. Chaplains provide assistance with coping, healing, spiritual and emotional support; listen to concerns and questions; and facilitate stress mitigation by talking through experiences. In a disaster, chaplains also use their contacts to connect with community faith leaders and to activate interfaith resources and support.
Building relationships of mutual trust with community clergy requires significant time, resources, and energy. However, this collaborative work can bear rich fruit in providing improved spiritual care for our religiously diverse patients, as well as trusted community connections for times of personal crisis and community disaster. As healthcare moves toward creating healthier communities together, chaplains and community clergy have this opportunity for collaboration as they minister together in the common cause of promoting the spiritual wellness of those entrusted to their care.
Fr. Freddy Ocun, AJ, is director of pastoral services, and Melinda A. Smith, BCC, is a chaplain at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, OR.