When disaster or tragedy strikes – like the forest fires now burning in northern Alberta – first responders are on the scene within minutes to provide urgent care and healing.
Even when they’re not needed, they’re on standby. Wildfire season in Alberta is also a time of heightened alert for chaplains – the first responders for spiritual care – who are ready to serve if disaster strikes.
Rev. Felix Kusamba, a chaplain at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, is on edge as he reads and watches news coverage of the wildfires.
“I’m anxious,” says Father Kusamba. “Maybe I’ll get the call. And I will go.”
Over the past few days, 6,000 residents in High Level, MacKenzie and Northern Lights counties, and First Nations in northwestern Alberta are returning to the homes after being chased out by smoke and flames for roughly two weeks. Another 4,400 residents of the Wabasca area are still displaced due to mandatory evacuation orders.
Just like any first responder, chaplains rush to the scene, whether it’s on a large scale where hundreds have been displaced by disaster or on a deeply personal level with a family dealing with sickness or death.
If first responders treat physical wounds, chaplains treat those that are invisible – spiritual wounds. Their first aid tools aren’t bandages and gauze; they’re faith and presence.
In Edmonton, six Catholic chaplains ̶ three clergy and three lay people with specialized clinical pastoral training ̶ stand ready to respond. But in Canada, there is a critical shortage of Catholic chaplains. More information on training is available through the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care.
Based at the Royal Alexandra and University of Alberta hospitals, the chaplains provide pastoral and spiritual care to individuals, families, and staff at times of crisis.
They pray with them on their journey toward better health. Clergy chaplains can provide the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick and Confession, while lay chaplains can provide the Eucharist and may baptize in an emergency.
“We’re at death. We’re at withdrawal of life support. We’re at people’s worst days. Every day,” said Molly Chu, who serves at the University hospital. “Do I like seeing people’s suffering? No, not at all. But I know God’s love is there.”
Teresa Kellendonk, who supervises the chaplains in her role as head of pastoral care for the Archdiocese, says spiritual pain is unique.
“It’s a wounding of a different kind, but it’s still – for that person – it can be catastrophic. Chaplains hold a person’s story in a different way than a counsellor would, because we’re going to be answering the questions of the spiritual … ‘Where is God in all of this for me?’ ”
When they are on call, the chaplains can get summoned at any time of day or night. They begin with the simple, but profound, act of letting people speak – and listening without judgment.
“So much of it is listening to the story. It’s an unfolding story. It’s where they are and where they’ve come. They’re in trauma,” said Chu, a chaplain for 6 ½ years.
It’s indicating “I am here. I am present. That’s huge. Someone is here. Because not everyone wants to tell their story. Some people can’t speak,” Chu said. “I can’t say enough about it. That’s the essence of it. That’s the way God is to us, that’s the presence.”
Father Kusamba adds, “We bring hope, and to find ways that they can bear their illness with hope and prayer. In chaplaincy, just being with someone, you are quiet. You don’t teach. You are quiet. You let him know what happened in his or her life and where is God.”
Sometimes it’s on a large scale. The evacuation of more than 80,000 people from Fort McMurray, fleeing the largest wildfire in Alberta history, has become a high water mark for chaplains. And it’s perhaps a situation that best describes the type of work they do on a daily basis.
The Fort McMurray fire began on May 1, 2016. For chaplains, it was the equivalent of a code red, a situation that called upon all of their training and expertise. Hundreds of evacuees were temporarily housed at the Edmonton Expo Centre. Under an agreement with the City of Edmonton, the Archdiocese responded to the call: Send your chaplains.
When Father Kusamba and his fellow chaplains walked into the Expo Centre, they were stunned.
“It was a new city,” Kusamba said. “People were everywhere. Services like washrooms, food, health services, some room for kids, places for prayer, it was very well organized. And there were people everywhere – police, sheriffs. For me, it was a new village there.”
The only instruction to the chaplains: “If you see people, go and talk to them. Go. Don’t wait. Just go.”
Father Kusamba walked up and down the aisles, scanning the crowds. He saw a wide range of people ̶ men, women, kids, families – who had come from all over the world to live in Fort McMurray. Many were in shock and in tears. He would ask a simple question: “How are you doing?”
“I saw a lot of tears. And regret. Some were asking ‘Are we going back? Are we going to work again?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. Just tell me what you saw, what happened to you.’
“They were telling the way they saw the fire coming to them. They told me their loss, loss of their dog, loss of everything, loss of their world, loss of schools, loss of their kids’ friends – they don’t know where they are. It was about loss of their relationship with the city … The first intervention was to listen.”
Disaster can strike at any time. And Chu said victims understand that in a personal way.
One Fort McMurray family had to leave in the middle of their child’s party. “They gave their child the joy of the birthday to preserve that for them,” she said. “That’s the kind of things that were happening, a lot.”
“We didn’t go in strictly as Catholic. We were there as chaplains. People were stepping off the buses, or their transport, in shock. They made it to safety, and now what? That’s what we were getting. I would have to say, right away, boy, the stories came. I think people were surprised at how much they needed to talk about what they had just been through.”
It’s the same model of pastoral care that chaplains use in hospitals, when they talk, pray and spend time with patients and their families before surgery or as they try to process news of an illness or death.
Father Kusamba said, “That’s what I do at the Royal Alex. Go in. Sitting with patients. Visiting with them. It’s very similar. In the hospital, it’s a new home. It’s not their home. Sometimes they feel alone. Loneliness. Fear of surgery. Fear of the outcome of medicine. They bear a lot of feelings.
“The fact that you are present to someone who is not sure what happened to his health, you make the difference. You pray with him if they ask. If they don’t ask, you are still there. Present.”
Sometimes the best a chaplain can do is to sit with a person and hold them in their grief.
“Even if you don’t pray, I believe the Holy Spirit is working in that time,” Father Kusamba said. “The Holy Spirit is the advocate of the situation even in the silence, working in the lives of people.”
The Fort McMurray evacuees eventually began telling their stories, and some even began to laugh, he recalled. “They were repeating the event. ‘Do you remember what we did the night before the fire?’ a wife would ask her husband. After the shock, it was kind of a cooldown, becoming a friend with the event and the memory.”
As a priest, Kusamba offered to hear confessions. Some evacuees simply asked for a blessing. Others had larger, more existential questions.
“Some asked this question: ‘Where is God now, in my life? I lost everything. I left my country. I left my home to come here and work and now I lost my house.’ I remember one evacuee I used to talk with. He said, ‘Why do you think God should be involved in this situation?’ I said, Why not?”
Kusamba did what all chaplains do.
“I worked with him to show the face of love of God. God is more spacious, more big than one event in our lives. God is more than fire. God is love. God is forgiveness. God is mercy. God is a journey to a light, a way. Maybe you can find a kind of balance to see that sometimes things happen. It’s just nature, and God is more than nature.”
As a parish priest, Kusamba might be thanked for a good homily, but he didn’t really know what kind of an effect it had. As a chaplain, the results are much more immediate.
“In the hospital, in chaplaincy, you know their needs. You journey with someone. You are touching, and he is touching your life too. It’s an exchange of spiritual gift or spiritual power between you and the one you encounter.”
Chaplains consider themselves messengers of God’s mercy. That belief is infused in a ritual Chu has as she washes her hands before and after seeing patients.
“When I wash my hands before I go in, it’s a prayer to me every time. I say, ‘Lord, be with me. Be present with me. Give me the words.’ And then I go,” she said. “I don’t worry; I just go in because I know who I’m going with. And when I leave, I wash my hands and I say, ‘Lord, I leave it to you. You remain with them.’ ”
“God finishes up the presence that I brought. God continues. I know that’s what happens, because I hear it after. People have come to me years after, and say ‘This is what happened after you left.’ ”
Hospital chaplains represent a variety of faiths. As a Catholic chaplain in particular, Chu said she’s convinced their simple, yet profound, acts are helping – and they’ve helped her own faith journey.
“I can go straight to the source for me, without preaching. I can talk about Jesus. When you come to the end or you’re in a tough spot, it’s natural to reach for something. A lot of people reach into their faith.”
“People are coming to be healed and forgiven. They have the Eucharist, and that’s the one who heals. I see things that my faith gets stronger doing this kind of work. This is the real stuff. Sounds. Smells. Looks. Blood. Guts. It’s profoundly real. To be brought to that, to be able to serve in that, I have to pinch myself and say, ‘I’m doing this. What a call.’ ”
Experts say the effects of climate change may make devastating wildfires, like Fort McMurray in 2016, Slave Lake in 2011 and – to a lesser extent – High Level this year, more of a reality. If that’s the case, chaplains say, their work will become even more important.
“We need to be aware that these things can happen,” Chu said. “My hope is that we never stop caring. I hope we don’t get used to this. Yeah, another fire. I hope that our wanting to help stays high. I hope we never get fatigued as communities that are not affected. I hope this doesn’t become so common that we stop.”