By Scott Scanlon
The newest chaplain at Roswell Park Cancer Institute speaks two languages, but when it comes to the spiritual needs of patients he can talk in terms of many different faiths.
“Roswell is a place with so many different flowers, it’s very interesting,” says Pastor Reninger Flores. “Most of the population are Christians, but I’ve also had the opportunity to find people who are Hindus, Muslims, those with Native American philosophies.
“I have to center my conversation in what they believe. As a chaplain, I have to fulfill their needs, not my needs.”
Flores ministers to his new flock in English or Spanish. He cut his pastoral teeth in his native Peru, moved to Jamaica, N.Y., in 1992 to become upstate representative for the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and got training in clinical pastoral education at Sisters Hospital, as well as McAuley Residence in Kenmore, after he and his family moved to Western New York in 2005.
He started working at Roswell Park about 2½ months ago and is one of three part-time chaplains at the 133-bed regional cancer center.
You’ve been in different settings. What are some of the common concerns people have?
Every setting has their own kind of environment, but a common thing I find in every place is a person, the human being, is the same. ‘Hope’ is a word that I share in every place. … As a chaplain, if I can create in this person who is crying, who is in pain, who is angry against everything a little hope, I did my job.
People need to know this is not the end. If they have a heart attack, kidney problems or any kind of problems, they have to keep working. Don’t give up. Words like this usually help.
How has your approach to tending to the sick and dying changed over time?
As a pastor, we have training. We know everything about theology, maybe some kind of psychology, too. But when I started taking clinical pastoral education, I discovered another dimension of being a pastor. It’s not just about sharing with your parishioners or members of your church. Now you have to deal with different faiths and more broad things. I love these things.
How will your religious background impact the way you minister as a chaplain at Roswell?
When I see a person who is in a bed, who’s facing Stage IV cancer, for me, this is not a member of a church, it’s a person who needs my presence. I don’t have an agenda in my pocket. I’m not going to pray with him [first]. I’m not going to give counsel. I have to visit the person and then, after a conversation, I have my conclusion.
Two weeks ago, a patient invited me to sit down. He started telling me about his life as a fisherman, as a traveler in the world. As a chaplain, this is my reason to be there – listening.
Talk about the Hindu family you met a few weeks ago.
People love when I ask them, “Please tell me about your faith.” We have in our materials prayers for the Hinduism community. I asked them, “Can I pray for you?,” and they said, “Please, go ahead.”
Here, when I read a prayer, you can see the faces changing. Happiness. This is the way we work here. The opportunities to interact with different communities of faith is so huge, and also we have the resources for different communities.
It can be a strain for anyone to deal with serious health issues. How much more difficult can that be for someone who has a language barrier and how might you be able to help at Roswell?
To speak of spiritual concerns, especially for the Hispanic community, they are very confidential. They don’t want to share much about their beliefs with other people. But when they see you speaking their language, they open their heart. If they’re angry with God, we can talk with them, pray with them, sing with them. Speaking their own language opens the heart of the patients. They have more channels to get through a situation.
What should families know as they begin to deal with such a challenging time, especially when it comes to faith?
The first thing they need to understand is they have help here. They are not alone. They’re not in a place where the patient or the family are strangers. As a worker, I feel like part of a family here. Just the first day here, they said, ‘You work with us.’ I’m a chaplain who wants to work with you. How can I help you now?