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J.D. Long GarcíaSeptember 14, 2020
Chaplains, seen here outside the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, are adapting their ministry during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courtesy photo) 

Everyone dies, but not all cultures observe death in the same way. The Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is just one example. Each year, Mexican Catholics will put up ofrendas, or altars, in their homes with pictures of loved ones along with items from their loved ones who have passed.

“In remembering them, we celebrate the example of their lives, like we do with the saints. So too we do with our family members,” Stephanie Ramos, a chaplain at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, told America. She said this year she wanted the altar up in time for her birthday, Oct. 26, so she could think of her friends and loved ones on her special day.

This year, she will add a picture of a close family friend who died of Covid-19. Ms. Ramos, a fifth-generation Mexican-American, graduated from the L.A. County hospital’s Interfaith Hospital Chaplaincy Program on Aug. 13. She said her faith and culture have already helped in her chaplaincy during the pandemic. Nearly half of L.A. County residents are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Stephanie Ramos, a hospital chaplain, says her Latino heritage help her make connections with those she serves. (Courtesy photo)

“Our family traditions, our Latino traditions, I bring them here. I’m called to be here and be present to the people in their most sacred moments,” she said. When Ms. Ramos encounters someone in her ministry, she asks about their background.

“I find that brings them joy, to share about their culture and just about being family,” she said. “That’s so important in the Latino culture. And it can help people grieve.”

These days, she takes part in what she described as tele-chaplaincy with Covid patients. She cannot go into the hospital room with them, so instead she speaks to them through a phone on the other side of a glass window.

“We miss that touch, or the smile on the face,” Ms. Ramos said. She is also there for family members who are grieving a loved one who has died. She recounted speaking on the phone with a woman who could not be by her husband's side when he died in the hospital.

“She just broke down. I wanted to go through the telephone and hold her in my arms,” Ms. Ramos said. She also described family members gathering at the hospital room window so they could see their sick loved one through the glass.

“I dropped him off and I can’t see him or touch him again before he dies.”

Ms. Ramos recounted what she has heard from patient’s family members: “I dropped him off and I can’t see him or touch him again before he dies.” There is an additional hurt, she said, adding, “To accompany someone and be present to someone during this time is so different.”

The pandemic complicates hospital chaplaincy with non-Covid patients as well. Personal protective equipment, six-foot physical distancing and other protocols alter how patients interact with their families. Older family members, who may be more vulnerable to the virus, often do not visit the hospital as a precaution.

“It’s difficult for Hispanics,” said Nemesio Santana, a seminarian from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who graduated from the chaplaincy program with Ms. Ramos. “We are a group of people that like to interact with each other. And patients are not receiving visitors. So when they see a chaplain, their eyes light up. Sometimes, that’s the only time they get to talk to someone.”

"It brings the theoretical to the practical. How can we reconcile pain with love and give spiritual care?”

Mr. Santana, who was born in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, moved to the United States when he was 11. He was raised in South Gate, Calif., a city in L.A. County. He is currently doing his internship at Our Lady of the Assumption in Ventura as part of his priestly formation.

Nemesio Santana, a hospital chaplain and seminarian with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks with a hospital worker. (Courtesy photo) Nemesio Santana, a hospital chaplain and seminarian with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks with a hospital worker. (Courtesy photo) 

“It gave me the opportunity to work in the hospital setting,” he said of the chaplaincy program. “That has changed my life. It brings the theoretical to the practical. How can we reconcile pain with love and give spiritual care?”

Father Chris Ponnet began laying the groundwork for the St. Camillus Center Urban Interfaith Chaplaincy Program in 1997. It was certified and accredited by the Department of Education in 2018. Father Ponnet, who runs the program, said the center receives students from across the United States and overseas. They spend more than 300 hours in a clinical setting and 100 hours in groups to unpack their experiences.

“We train a lot of folks so they can bring their professionalism to faiths,” Father Ponnet said, “And we train our students to respect every faith or no faith.”

Oftentimes, he said, individuals who are non-believers or who are not practicing their faith will fall back on the tradition with which they were raised. Father Ponnet, who goes into hospital rooms with Covid patients for anointings, will name saints from an individual’s culture when administering Last Rites. He said he feels that his presence in the room means a lot not only to the patients themselves, but also to their families.

“For the family not being able to get in the room at all is really an added barrier, both physically and spiritually,” Father Ponnet said of the grieving process.“It’s an added suffering to what is already a painful illness.”

When celebrating a funeral Mass, for example, physical distancing can feel impossible, he said. “That’s when we give people hugs, let people cry on our shoulder. That’s outside the six-feet rule,” Father Ponnet explained.

Serving as a chaplain is awe-inspiring and humbling, he said. And at the same time, patients and families deeply appreciate chaplains. “It makes clear to me that we are a church,” Father Ponnet said. “It’s not me, it’s us together.”

The ministry of presence is something more than 140 students have experienced over the years.

“I cannot provide the answers for everything, but being present—that’s when miracles happen,” Mr. Santana said. “God works through this imperfect vessel. God journeys with them in their pain and suffering.”

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