"What we try to do is to help people identify the spirituality inside, to tap into it as a resource."
The Rev. Dale Stanley
Whether the Rev. Dale Stanley is calmly visiting a patient or speeding to the emergency room, she tries to do just one thing -- to be there to listen.
"I want to give the person a renewed sense of confidence in faith and in life," said Stanley, manager of St. Joseph Hospital's spiritual care department.
Stanley is one of a new breed in the local Catholic Health System, which employs 24 chaplains. Along with Roman Catholic priests and sisters, they are a multicultural, multifaith group that more closely represents the hospital population.
Stanley, for example, is a United Church of Christ minister. Thunder Silk, a Native American, was ordained by the Go For It ministry of Jacksonville, Fla. Sister Donna Lord is a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart. Deborah Tyler is a Lutheran chaplain. The Rev. Ernest Williams is a Baptist. Besides that, there are rabbis and imams who visit as needed.
Occasionally, someone will request a Catholic priest, though most people are glad to see any of them, said Stanley. "Mostly, they agree on one God, and that's the main point," she said.
Margaret Frey, 90, who has been in and out of St. Joseph in the last few months, said it's comforting to receive Communion daily and to talk to Kermy Haraszko, a Catholic chaplain.
"In these times, it's hard to speak with people, because you never know how they feel about religion, so I really appreciate the chance," said Frey. "I appreciate her very, very much."
The best chaplains are those who have a sense of the holy, a compassionate heart and self-awareness, said Stanley, who marked the 20th year of Pastoral Care Week this week, a national initiative to recognize spiritual-care advisers.
To become certified, candidates go through the Clinical Pastoral Education program, which requires 1,600 hours of study in theology, clinical procedures and self-discovery.
"You find your unhealed hurts," Stanley said. "You understand what your own pain is and what your answers are. Then you can stand with others in their struggle."
She's speaking from a place deep in her own experience that led her to this ministry. "I'd rest pretty comfortable saying that most all chaplains have a story that brings us here," she said in answer to why she became a chaplain.
"My husband committed suicide at an early age," she said.
"I called my pastor, and he went with me. I know I can help, because I've been there and I know how awful it is and how overwhelming it is.
"At the time, I let God have it," she said. "I wasn't on speaking terms with him for a long time. But I found a God who said, "Let me hold you for a bit, let's walk this together."
Typically, she doesn't talk about what happened to her, she said.
"You are there to minister to the other," she said, "and not to tell your story because you haven't resolved it."
Working the night shift
Thunder Silk is a Navajo who grew up with family members who were sick. "So it was the last thing in the world I could deal with -- death and dying," said Silk, who changed her mind after working with AIDS patients in Florida when no one else would.
"I absolutely fell in love with it," she said. "I think it's because you are with the real realness and wholeness of a person."
On the night shift in Sisters Hospital, Silk takes as much notice of the staff as she does patients, she said.
"I'm very aware if a nurse is upset, if someone has tears in their eyes," she said. "You have to see the person as important as anyone else, even yourself. At least that's what I'm trying for."
Matthew Skulicz seems equally amazed that he's a chaplain.
"I'm kind of quiet by nature, not really sociable or an extrovert," said Skulicz, who retired from teaching English at Erie Community College and now works part time in Kenmore Mercy Hospital.
"So I worried about that, because I don't have anything clever to say," said Skulicz, who got into chaplaincy 14 months ago as part of the Catholic Church's deacon formation program, "but the spirit guides you to place where people want to talk."
When he started at the hospital, he wanted to skip the preliminary small talk. "I wanted to get right into it, into the suffering," he said.
But he has learned to wait and see where the person takes the conversation, he said.
"I remember this one man, an African-American man in his 80s," he said. "He told me his life story, from how his mother used to go to the butcher for a 'dog bone' and the butcher would give her one with four pounds of meat on it, so she could feed the family.
"We talked for some time like that, and then he said he didn't think he was right with God and we prayed together, for both of us. We'd gotten to a place where our hearts were talking to each other."
Not every visit is soul-baring, Skulicz said. "Sometimes it's just a human being stopping by to help them cope with the fear and worry they might have," he said, "to let them know that someone cares the way Christ cares."
What chaplains don't do, they say, is evangelize or proselytize.
"Absolutely not," said Stanley. "What we try to do is to help people identify the spirituality inside, to tap into it as a resource."
Usually -- though not always -- people are receptive to their visits. "Sometimes a person will say 'No way. I don't want anything to do with that crap,' " said Stanley.
Often people ask why God allows them to suffer. "I personalize the answer by saying that I've asked the same question," Stanley said. "But I also say that I believe that God loves them and wants them to be comforted by that love.
"You kind of put it out there and see where it goes," she said.
Chaplains also do grief counseling, preside at funerals, intervene when families can't agree, even help with end-of-life decisions.
"I'm not afraid of death," said Stanley. "And I think it helps people to talk to a religious person who can say, 'God made you, and God is ready to welcome you home.' "
Dr. Y. Satchidanand, director of the hospital's Palliative Care program, said she relies heavily on chaplains. At a recent seminar, as other doctors were discussing difficult patients and situations, she said: "I don't understand all the talking about this -- why don't you just take a chaplain with you. They are here for every single patient, every single day."
But taking care of every patient, every day, can take a toll. To allay "compassion fatigue," these chaplains say they try to maintain a vital prayer life, they meditate, they continue their education, they vent to each other or scream, at times, as they drive home. Thunder Silk says she finds it healing to live on a mountain and stay close to nature.
Mostly, though, they feel privileged to be with people when they are most vulnerable. "It's good work," said Skulicz, "serving God by serving God's people."
Thunder Silk puts it this way: "This is the first job I've ever had where I'm paid to love people. And besides that, they feed me good."