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Interview: 'Our Journey of Hope's Director Rev. Percy McCray on Mobilizing Church for Holistic Cancer Care

( [email protected] ) Jun 03, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Rev. Percy McCray
Rev. Percy McCray (right) (Photo: Our Journey of Hope)

Reverend Percy McCray is the Director of Pastoral Care at Cancer Treatment Center of America (CTCA) at Midwestern Regional Medical Center, a regional medical center located just outside of the greater-Chicago area. Rev. McCray has been employed there for the past 19 years, and is part of a new nationwide outreach program as an extension of the internal pastoral program at CTCA. The program, called "Our Journey of Hope," is a cancer care ministry outreach program which brings church leaders to the regional hospitals to train church congregations on the key components needed to build a compassionate, faith-based cancer care ministry.

In an interview with The Gospel Herald, Rev. McCray shared the vision of Our Journey of Hope, the history of how it came about, his personal journey of coming to CTCA, and how bringing spiritual care to cancer patients helps them better cope with their battle.

Below is the edited interview transcript:  

Q. Can you share with us about the vision of "Our Journey of Hope" and how it came about? 

"We created a curriculum that's designed to speak specifically to the unique needs of cancer patients and understand practically how to support them from a spiritual perspective. Over the years, the patients who came to our hospitals were very religious and spiritual-about 80% label themselves as Evangelical Christians. While we didn't do anything specifically to reach out to them, something about our program attracted them. So we began looking internally at what we did that appealed to them, and started purposefully reaching  out to faith based communities and their leaders with structured training that provided them resources they can apply to their local churches before their members ever become a patient at our hospital.

So we wanted to own that space. We value and respect the role of faith and spirituality as pastors and ministers working in a health care organization; we value what we are allowed to do internally for our patients and their caregivers. We want to train local churches and pastors how to do that inside their local churches.

What "Our Journey of Hope" does is transfer the moving components of the theoretical and philosophical application of faith, support, and prayer of cancer patients. We wanted to put a program together that would transfer that into the hands of local churches and pastors.  

The newest implementation of Our Journey of Hope is that we are bringing pastors to our facilities to do two days of training, so we can immerse them into the orientation. We provide them with a number of resources and a complete curriculum. After they are done with training, we commission them and send them back to local churches so that they can implement that material and train leaders in their communities to start this health care ministry. That's Our Journey of Hope.

Q. What kind of progress has been made so far?

"We have a ten year track record for two of our hospitals, and other hospitals came on board five or six years later. We have also spoken to hundreds of churches throughout the United States. To begin the conversation, we're looking at how many churches are actually starting health care ministries. We are also looking at how many pastors we are physically bringing to our five facilities around the country, which so far has been about 30-40 during each session. We are measuring how many of those pastors are ready to start and have already begun their health care ministries.

Our implementation of this is new. For our pastor alum, we are probably looking at 6 churches and pastors who have gone back to start-health care ministries. Throughout the years, I would say that we have somewhere around 50 churches that have some elemental aspects of health care ministry. We want put a little more emphasis and structure to assure that's happening at a larger level than previously done.

Our Journey of Hope Began in Nov. 2013 with its newest version of the program which is bringing pastors to the facilities. 

To put that into perspective, we (Midwestern Regional Medical Center) have only done one training so far, which was in March, with this emphasis in mind, and we already have six churches that started implementing this curriculum. We are looking to exponentially ramp up this number and really to immerse and commission the pastors in their local churches to begin implementing this.

Q. What kind of changes will the 2.0 version make in the ministry?

In the past, many pastors have not taken ownership of the cancer ministry, but the pastor wasn't engaged in the the training. This 2.0 version allows pastors upfront to have emotional and visceral inclusion so they can cast this vision to the remainder of the congregation. That's been the new shift:  how to create  traction on this new emphasis. Otherwise, it's just going to be a slow death with members trying to push something without pastors standing behind it.  

Q. Are there any other hospitals or ministries like yours in the state?

There is another health care system outside Cancer Treatment Center of Americas that have begun to do something similar to this. With that being said, my knowledge of something with this emphasis and to this degree has not existed at this level. The program is free. We provide resources and establish relationships with the churches.

But there is potentially another group that is starting to do something similar. I'm not familiar with that, but I just caught wind of it. 

Q. What's your story? How did you get involved?

It is kind of serendipitous. It was not originally my desire or intent to work in a health care environment from a pastoral perspective. However, I entered the field  because of my background and my orientation through a series of events.

On the far south side of Chicago, my dad was abducted at gun point while he was getting off of work one night. He refused to remain hostage, so he jumped out of the car and got hit by a truck. Now, he's disabled and has been for the last 30 years. Yet, he still has a fighting spirit, and helped me develop a fighting mentality. That's the kind of background I grew up in.  

When I was able to connect with this dynamic called "cancer" and support cancer patients, I realized the key component to any cancer patient working through the trial was to embrace a fighting spirit or surround themselves with those who nurture their fighting spirit, which happened to be up my alley. I was able to connect my theological, religious calling with a real cause that transcended just going to heaven and talking about being a good Christian and really apply that to a pragmatic and practical struggle in humanity. Cancer was that petri dish for me that allowed me to apply my background, my orientation, and my theological training with a real cause. That's how the marriage took place.

Cancer patients are in a fight, in a battle, and they need to be encouraged and nurtured through the power of prayer and modern medicine. The fact that cancer is theoretically beatable and survivable is typically not the answer that cancer patients receive from their circumstances. And I'm allowed to apply a spiritual application to that empowers that kind of fighting spirit. That's my marriage and my relationship to the fight of cancer and that's how I got engaged in this process.

Q. From this past ten years of working in this ministry, have there been any statistics on whether or not patients do turn out healthier than those who do not receive this kind of support to develop a fighting spirit.

 One of the leading experts on the subject of spirituality and faith, health and healing is Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University. He conducted 40-50 years of tremendous research that tells us that people who are spiritual and religious live longer, they cope better. They tend to extend using aggressive treatment or therapy in late stages of cancer. They are more optimistic. At the end of the day, there is a tendency to extend and move beyond the negative diagnosis if it's not by months or years, than without them. That data suggests and says to us very strongly and consistently that religion and spirituality in a balanced application in a health care environment being applied towards the issues of mental, emotional physical sickness and diseases no longer can, should, or will be rejected.  At the end of the day, it becomes kind of a foundation that really allows people to move beyond their struggles and trials even if it's just a week, a month, a year. It lets them process and address the whole aspect of not being a victim of cancer; even if they die, they can have a good and healthy death.

Those numbers tell us that at the end of the day, the juice is worth the squeeze. This needs to be done and this has to be done. We have actually forced the health care community to embrace the role of spirituality and pastoral care in a way that doesn't relegate pastoral care to being a crisis counselor. Historically, hospital chaplains are called upon in crisis situations.

My first month working in the health care business, I was referred to by patients as the grim reaper, because of the reference point of pastors in a hospital setting. The pastors or priests only showed up to give the last rite, to help break bad news. With that, we have shifted the paradigm that hospital pastors are here to bring you good news and to provide a basis and a platform for you to work toward that good news.

Q. Are these services for those who voluntarily subscribe to it, or is this service for anybody in the hospital, as some of your patients may not be Christians?

It is probably the second most common question that I'm asked given the polarization of the social stigma and some cases distrust of religion and spirituality. Controversy goes with that. Religion and spirituality evokes a lot of emotional stimuli on people, depending on which side of the fence they fall on. Having said that, given that health care institutions are public, open forums, obviously, everyone within our organization must have a sensitivity of understanding that there may very well be for different reasons, people who do not embrace the idea of God, or faith, or any elements of spirituality, and at the end of the day, that certainly is their prerogative to do so.

My job and our job is simply to be available for those who do embrace that and who are looking for that. Our programs are designed in such a way that we have assessments, patients can trigger us on what they do or do not want. But even for those patients who are not truly engaged around spiritual concepts and ideology, pastoral care on the most minimal and simplest level, is to just hold people's hand and help them step through a process. If nothing else, we can be a sounding board.

So let me add a different twist to this, pastoral care in a health care setting, and certainly in our health care setting, from a Christian perspective is not there to evangelize. I want to be very clear about that. It is not my job, it is not my role, and I will not tolerate that in my building, because ultimately we are there to create relationships with people. And relationships need to be a mutually trusting engagement that both parties come to the table and allow each other to find a happy medium between each other. That's really true from a religious standpoint.

We can't bombard people or overwhelm them with deep, heavy theological concepts if they are not interested in that. Or they just simply do not have the ability to relate to that, but that certainly doesn't negate the ability to create a relationship under the guise that we are just here to step through this process with you. Typically, that can be an unfolding relationship that moves into the direction of, "you know, let's talk little bit about God or will you pray with me?" Again, that's on the term of the patient, not on the terms of the clinician. The patient drives the bus. We're fortunate to ride alongside, which evokes the concept of "not my journey of hope, not your journey of hope, but our journey of hope."

We've been asked to partner with them. They've allowed us to join them on that journey, and we facilitate that relationship based upon their terms and their comfort level.

Q. Are you able to give me specific examples on how you apply this relationship building and support to the patients?

I'm going to use an example that I've used in training before I got into the industry. I was in the car business and my greatest relationship building mechanism was in selling cars. I attended a school where they train you how to sell cars. At this school they teach you the five principles of salesmanship, and anybody that was able to sell anything to anybody effectively operates by these five principles.

Number one principle is the art of the meet and greet; help your customer feel comfortable with who they are and engage in interaction.  Once you learn how to meet and greet someone, then you must learn to establish rapport and relationship with that person. Find some common ground that allows you and that individual to share some common space: a school that you went to, a sports team that you like, part of the country that you grew up in, something that you and that individual can share some common space. Then you need to find out what their needs are.

Everyone needs something, and we just need to find out what that is. Every cancer patient need something: "I just want you to listen to me, I just want you to tell me a story, I need to talk about how angry I am at God." We just need to find out what those needs are and then shut up. What do you want? What can I do for you today? What can I do for you right now, Mr. Jones?

"Are you going to listen to me?" 

"Yes, sir"

After you properly meet and greet someone, after you have created a rapport and relationship, after you have found common ground, then from there you can pick out a vehicle.

I can sell you a car that you don't want. I need to find a car that will fit what you just told me. I know what your needs are and I need to find a vehicle and sit you in it. And I need to let you drive it, I need you to feel the leather and fall in love with it and say this feels good, this is exactly what I'm looking for. After you have done that, you can sit down and ask to close the sale.

For example, have you been struggling with forgiveness, hurts in your past? You are looking for a way to deal with that. Have you thought about talking to someone and then something as simple as meditation.

"Have you ever thought about just meditating?" 

"I've never thought that. I'm not very religious, Rev. McCray."

"This is not about religion. This is just about quieting your mind."

And then you just pull out your pen and tell them to sign up. This is the basic relationship building skills required and it's done over a period of time and done in a way that's in the best interest of the customer, or in our case, the patient. 

"We'll talk about it tomorrow. We don't have to deal with that today."

Cancer patients don't just have cancer. They have other things that they are dealing with. Mental, emotional, physical. I had a patient who was a full-blown HIV patient. Full-blown AIDS. I attempted to speak to him on several occasion and he would not allow me to speak to him based on my orientation and my background of how he has been treated by others and because of his lifestyle. He was judged, etc. But, I was not going to take no for an answer.

Over a period of time of probably two months of coming back to the hospital, he finally allowed me to come into his room. I worked these principles that I just shared with you. I never talked to him about God, about faith, never opened the Bible or quoted the scriptures. When I found out what his needs were, one of the things that I found out about his needs were, he wanted to talk about hunting and fishing.

I don't hunt or fish. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. We don't hunt or fish. But I faked my way through my conversation about hunting and fishing with this guy, because that's what he wants to talk about and that's what is important to him.

Through a series of time, he came back to the hospital for his final visit. And he was dying. He had a sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in the room with him. He said, "Rev. McCray, I need you to sit down and talk to me." And I said, "What can I do for you today? What can I do for you right now? 

"I need you to sit here and hold my hands and talk to me," he said. I sat there and held his hand. I asked him one simple question. I said "How are you feeling?"  He said "I'm dying." I said, "How do you feel about that?" He said, "Well, I've been processing that." So I said, "If indeed today is your last day on the planet, and if you were to die right now, have you given any thought on what would happen to you beyond today?" That's all I said. Shut up. I put the pen down, because the person who speaks last loses.

It is the principle of salesmanship.

So he said, "I've given some thought to that. The last time that we spoke I went home and I got in my backyard and I began to think about my life and where I am and possibly how I got here. And I just asked God to come into my heart and to forgive me of my sins. And I called my family members and I told them and reconciled some things with loved ones. Today I'm at peace. And I'm fine with dying." 

And he slowly passed away. But before he passed away, he said, "But I really wanted to see if you would just hold my hand without a latex glove on today."

And then he died.

That's how you sell somebody a car and that's how you minister to someone with cancer.