By Beth Lenegan
“The first task is approaching another people, another culture is to take off our shoes. For the place we are approaching is holy ground. Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there upon our arrival.”
— Author unknown
Caring for patients and families from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and belief systems can be challenging for healthcare professionals and chaplains. Practices and beliefs that center on illness, suffering, death, and bereavement are varied and can greatly influence important decisions regarding the health and treatment of an individual. These diverse practices and beliefs also influence the perception of the quality of care. It is well documented that caregivers who are sensitive to patients’ cultural and belief systems can reduce stress at very difficult times and increase patient satisfaction.
As a director of pastoral care in collaboration with the director of diversity and inclusion, I have come to understand that diversity means differing from one another, so any group of two or more people is a diverse group. Our focus at Roswell Park is inclusion. An individual’s race, ethnicity, nationality, language, gender, sexual orientation, physical capability, and spiritual beliefs need to be respected. It is important for institutions to understand and reflect the communities they serve. Chaplains are instrumental in creating an inclusive environment that fosters teamwork, nurtures innovation, relies on integrity and creates a culture of compassion and respect for each other.
For the past 17 years, I have tried to continually educate and foster the environment of respect for the employees and staff at my institution, as well as those we serve.
One of my first steps was to assess the spiritual, religious, and cultural makeup of the community that surrounds our organization — the community that our employees, staff, and patients reflect and return to. As a comprehensive cancer center focusing on research, education, and treatment, Roswell Park attracts students, researchers, and patients from around the world. The city of Buffalo has a very strong Catholic presence, with pockets of refugees from distant countries. Therefore the first question is how we come to understand and respect one another’s beliefs.
One early project was to develop a resource guide for healthcare professionals in an interfaith world. This resource guide reflects communities of faith and cultures in our area. This project accomplished three things: It introduced local spiritual leaders to Roswell Park’s concern for the members of their community; the resource book educated employees and staff about the beliefs and values of their colleagues; and it became a tool that the institute staff could use as a guide to better understand the patients they were caring for.
I set aside a summer to visit men and women of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. I went with an open mind and asked each of them to teach me about the tenets of their faith; their sacred stories; the days they set aside as holy; the symbols and rituals of their tradition, and so on. Other questions included: What is your community’s view of illness, end-of-life issues, withholding and withdrawing treatment, and bereavement? How do your culture and religion communicate with one another? What is the understanding of family? Male and female relationships?
The result of meeting with 32 individuals was the publication of Caring Across Cultures and Belief Systems, which reflected various communities that surround the institute as well as the diverse work force within Roswell Park. This past winter we added four additional communities and published the second edition. The 36 individuals that I reached out to now serve Roswell Park as community consultants.
To better understand the diverse community within, I formed an interfaith employee networking resource group. Our mission is to promote an understanding and tolerant work environment by creating awareness of various religious beliefs, practices, and social structures that our employees embrace. The goals of the committee are for all religions to express their faith in an appropriate and meaningful way in the workplace and to establish an awareness of holy day and religious observances practiced by different religions. The committee meets every other month to plan the worship calendar for the year, as well as educational and social events that will increase religious and cultural awareness.
Also, the committee sponsors educational luncheons for the staff. A member of a faith tradition is invited to speak about his/her beliefs and values, and a caterer from that tradition provides lunch. One year, we invited staff to a Thanksgiving dinner and gave thanks for the diversity of Roswell Park. Last December, we sponsored a celebration of light and recognized those traditions that use light as a symbol during the winter and learned about their customs while sharing in their foods.
Pastoral Care Week offers an opportunity for chaplains to promote the work and ministry of spiritual care and to thank all who support our ministry. Patients and families are the best teachers of what is important to them during the time of illness, suffering and at the end of life. Each year, I invite five patients from different backgrounds to talk to our staff, pastoral care team, and area consultants about what their spirituality, religion, and culture mean to them and how their beliefs helped and challenged them as cancer patients.
Other ways I have promoted diversity and inclusion are: speakers, readings and choirs for patient remembrance services; website materials; and materials written for and distributed to patients and families.
Chaplains in all areas of ministry can be the leaders of tolerance, understanding and respect for all of God’s people. Creating a culturally sensitive workplace environment will help us respect our colleagues as well as care for each person with a deeper understanding.
For more information about any of the programs or projects or about future programs, you can contact me at (716) 845-8051.
Beth Lenegan, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY.