Spiritual Sanctuary

Heather Stringer

By Faith leaders from a variety of religious communities minister to patients to support specific needs.

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Patients diagnosed with cancer today have access to an increasing array of advanced therapies, but for some another tool that has withstood the test of time becomes invaluable on their cancer journey: faith.

Reverend Percy McCray, National Director of Faith-Based Spiritual Programming at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), says that pastoral care providers at CTCA® are constantly reminded that spiritual faith has the potential to unleash a power of its own in patients facing cancer. This can be especially true when patients are connected to people from their unique religious community. “When patients are surrounded by people of similar faith, they can access a hope that empowers them to endure pain, discouraging test results and an uncertain future,” Rev. McCray says.

While the Pastoral Care Team at CTCA offers general spiritual support, they recognize the value to patients of connecting with people from their specific faith background. To make this possible, the team fosters relationships with spiritual leaders within the communities where CTCA hospitals are located—and contacts these people when patients request more-specialized support.

“We are conscious of the fact that not everyone practices spirituality the same way, and by offering access to different faiths we can individualize medicine,” Rev. McCray says. “This includes helping patients access leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Catholic and evangelical Christian communities and others if needed.”

Maintaining Ritual and Prayer
Imam Amin Aziz frequently visits Muslim patients at CTCA in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and they often have questions about how to maintain the ritual of praying five times a day while in the hospital. This ritual directs Muslims to pray facing Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, first standing and then kneeling prostrate.

“I explain that people who are bed-bound can pray lying on one side or on the back,” Imam Aziz explains. “I also tell them to remember to pray for their community, and their community will pray for them. The prayers of the sick and the weak are answered, and we will pray that they get strong.”

When he visits a patient who would like prayer from the larger Islamic community, Imam Aziz notifies the 38 mosques within the Philadelphia area about the patient’s need for healing. The patient’s name and need is then mentioned during the daily prayer times at the mosques.

For hospitalized patients who are interested in participating in Muslim fasting traditions such as Ramadan, Imam Aziz encourages them to eat throughout the day to promote healing rather than eating only before dawn or after sunset. Instead of fasting, they can participate by praying for others who are fasting, Imam Aziz says. He also offers to perform acts of generosity on the patient’s behalf as a way to encourage blessings from Allah.

“For example, I may feed someone in the community in the name of the patient or arrange to pay for five meals for people who come to a restaurant, and in this way the patients will receive the same blessings as the fasting community.”

Reconnecting with Faith
Faith leaders within the community who work with CTCA agree that one critical element of the initial patient meeting is discerning a patient’s level of connection to his or her faith. For example, if someone has not been actively involved in a Jewish synagogue for years, Rabbi David Rosenberg will start by asking questions about childhood memories related to Judaism. Some people have recollections of grandparents taking them to the synagogue or baking challah, explains Rabbi Rosenberg, the rabbi of Beth Emeth Congregation in Sun City West, Arizona.

“No matter how nonreligious people currently are, I never deny them a chance of prayer,” says Rabbi Rosenberg, who works with the Pastoral Care Team at CTCA in Goodyear, Arizona. “I usually touch them as I pray in Hebrew and will translate if needed. One of the common prayers is ‘He who blessed our ancestors, may He give them a full healing among us and bring them back to full function.’”

Although the rabbi sees people at all stages in the cancer journey, he vividly remembers the times when his presence is requested during the final hours of someone’s life. One 80-year-old woman was in the end stages of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she asked for Rabbi Rosenberg. When doctors learned that he had to arrange a flight to see her and would arrive in 24 hours, they explained to her husband that there was little chance she would still be alive. Much to everyone’s surprise, she held on until his arrival.

“When I got to her bedside, I told her I was there and took her hand,” Rabbi Rosenberg says. “She opened her eyes, and she thanked me, and then she closed her eyes. At the transition between life and death, everyone has to get up on the diving board and then they have to jump off. My job is to walk with them and do anything I can to help them do that with the least amount of suffering.”

Spiritual Support for Beliefs
Jim Hardin, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness Patient Visitation Group, often visits with patients undergoing treatment at CTCA in Newnan, Georgia. Hardin says that serving patients in this setting can provide spiritual solace and support at a time of great need.

“The Bible and prayer are important for providing support for these patients, family members and caregivers,” Hardin explains. “To help them cope with the anxiety caused by illness, I often turn to verses in Philippians, which state that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds if we make our requests known to God.”

Jehovah’s Witness patients who adhere to the Bible teaching that blood transfusions are not permitted can request help from a Hospital Liaison Committee (HLC) member; HLC members serve as liaisons between patients and physicians to facilitate discussions about alternatives to blood transfusions. “Many bloodless surgeries are successfully performed at CTCA and other hospitals around the world as doctors use their skills without transfusions, and I help patients understand their options,” says Gordon Slomba, a member of the HLC that works with patients at CTCA.

While certain groups of patients may have questions about how to follow traditions within the walls of a hospital, almost all are eager to connect with spiritual leaders who will listen, explains Reverend Homer Walker, a Baptist minister in Hammond, Indiana, who has learned from the pastoral care team at CTCA in Zion, Illinois.

“Death and dying are tough issues, and I really try to be more of a listener than a talker because I don’t have the answers,” Rev. Walker says. “I try to just make myself available and present for them.”

One of the ways he facilitates conversations is by finding ways to talk to patients alone and vice versa. “Sometimes patients may want to discuss an issue that they do not want family members to hear, or loved ones may share privately with me that they do not understand why the patient is angry and lashing out. In both cases, they usually just need someone to listen.”

Although delving into situations like this may seem daunting to many people, Rev. Walker believes he is the lucky one. He is continually inspired by the people he visits who find the courage to keep praying in the midst of suffering.

“It is easy for people who are healthy to talk about how much they love God and how faithful they are, but I have a chance to be with people who are facing potentially life-threatening illnesses and still talking about the goodness of God,” Rev. Walker says. “That blesses me. They lift me up because I know their faith is real, and I want to be there when I am facing the same circumstances someday in the future.”