Mind, body and spirit: A conversation with WMC’s newest hospital chaplain

By Kristy Bleizeffer Dec 5, 2014

Chaplain ZacDSC_0284_ (1)When many people think of hospital chaplains, they think of pastors who come to the bedside to offer prayers at end of life. In fact, they do so much more.

“I think there is an approach in medicine today that recognizes the different dimensions needed for a person to be whole – psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual dimensions,” said The Rev. Zacarias C. Buhuro, the newest staff chaplain at Wyoming Medical Center.

The Pulse sat down with Buhuro to talk about his spiritual and professional journey from southeast Africa to Wyoming Medical Center and about the evolving role of the hospital chaplain.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Mozambique, which is in the southeast of Africa, and where Portuguese is the official language. I am from a large family – the third born of 10 siblings. I went to school there; primary, elementary, high school and college and entered the seminary to study to be a priest. I then went into training in Catholic seminary from senior high school until college where I graduated in Mozambique in what they call the Major Philosophical Seminary where I got my bachelor’s degree in philosophy. After I finished my undergraduate in 1998 I was sent to East Africa with training to be a missionary priest.

We will dedicate our new chapel at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 18 with local clergy and community leaders.

We will dedicate our new chapel at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 18 with local clergy and community leaders.

What called you to the seminary?
Growing up, my mother and father were going to church. My uncle, who is the older brother of my mother, during vacation I went to live with him. We always went to the Catholic Church. I was going to high school, so I was always around people who were in the vocational group that were aspiring to be priests. Through that influence, and also in the parish where I was attending – I was baptized at the Baptist church. The priest there was a kind of role model in the way he was dealing with people, and the way he was conducting himself. That was the inspiration for me to be like that also.

What kind of things was he doing?
I could see him visiting the sick in their homes, and he would bring the sacrament of communion to the people who could not come to church. Even in church, he was talking with people and helping people. The way he was preaching was really down to earth. He was also living with other priests who were called Jesuit priests. The lifestyle and the way they were, dealing with the kids, the poor, and the abandoned in the city. At the church, they had the shelter where there was a food bank where he would talk with people that were homeless. He was really serving the poor. All those things were what drew me.

After I finished my undergraduate, I was sent to Uganda in East Africa. The goal there was to continue the training, learn English and learn the lifestyle of what it is like to be a missionary. You have vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and all that. You learn the implications of those and the theology behind the spirituality, how each originated.

After that, they sent us to different schools in the world. I was with Comboni Missionaries, named for St. Daniel Comboni from Italy.

Explain the philosophy of Comboni  Missionaries?
The bottom line is that everybody follows the gospels of Jesus. Comboni was much into advocating the presence of the dignity of African people, because this was a time that colonization was going on with slavery. The church was also involved in all of these practices. He stood up in the church and said that Africans are also people who have souls.  He went to Africa to the Sudan, and that set him apart to go to the most poor and abandoned in society.

How did you come to the United States?
I was sent to Chicago in 2001 to pursue a master’s of divinity and a master’s of theology at the Catholic Theological Union. During all this time of seminary is a process of discernment. In facing myself, I was a person growing as a human, as African male who also is a Christian. When I joined seminary, I was only 17 or 18. As I was learning more and more about myself, and about  the whole structure of the vows, theology, and all that; at a point I found myself saying I could still be a missionary by being a Christian and serving people, but not necessarily embracing some of the stuff that I would not be able to live up to. I just wanted to be a regular Christian and do ministry in health care.

Why health care?
During all this from Mozambique and Uganda, they assigned us a kind of internship each year. In Mozambique, my first assignment in the hospital was in the psychiatric unit. I was always working. In Uganda, I was much involved with the kids who were orphaned because of parents who died of AIDS/HIV. We had big centers where we had to provide for different things such as education, and just cleaning them, and dealt with a lot of nurses and doctors who came to really walk with them. Coming to Chicago, my first assignment was in the hospice. I did not know what hospice was. Not only that, but visiting people in their homes in south side Chicago. It was a learning process to work with the patients at the end of life.

I grew to love it, even in the time that I decided to leave the seminary and chose to continue to do ministry in health care. I chose to go for a full year residency-in-training. From Chicago, I went to Evansville, Ind., where I stayed for one year at Deaconess Hospital studying Clinical Pastoral Education. I went back to Chicago’s Mercy Hospital as staff chaplain in 2006. My last job was again in hospice for four years.

What does a chaplain provide to someone that is part of the healing process?
I think that as a chaplain, many think we just go to hold hands and pray. We actually provide a space for someone who is dealing with a grief. For instance, someone who has lost a baby with a miscarriage or fetal demise, it is not only the physical loss but also what is it doing inside with emotions. How are they coping with that? That is why the chaplain is there to avail themselves and to journey with them in that suffering and loss. It may be someone who has had a diagnosis of stage 1, 2 or 3 cancer. That is the information you get from the physician, and then after that what do you do? How is it making you feel inside? How is it affecting your relationship with your family?

This is when the chaplain is there to offer a space for them to share those inner struggles. Of course, they will also try to find what their coping mechanisms, and what helps them to cope. Is it spirituality of their church, by reading something, by listening to music; what is that they use to cope? The chaplain is there to provide those resources. Do they want us to call their pastor, to help reconnect you? There is the psychological part, the emotional and the pastoral part with the spiritual also.

Our new expanded chapel is located in the new McMurry West Tower. Click here to read about what we are doing with the extra space.

Our new expanded chapel is located in the new McMurry West Tower. Click here to read about what we are doing with the extra space.

Tell me how you came to Wyoming Medical Center.
My fiancée, Beatrice Nanyonjo, got a job here with Sound Physicians. She told me, “Guess what. I got this job in Casper!” I said, “Ok. Casper. Where is that?” My mind is so open, maybe due to my training as a missionary, I like to experience new things and places.

At my first interview, I liked the surroundings. We stayed for five days in the city, and I liked the laid-back and peace, the panorama, and I like nature also. That was really reminding me of where I grew up in the village back home. People said that it gets so cold with a lot of wind. I said that I could bundle up. I had been in Chicago for 13 years.

What kind of work have you been doing so far here?
So far, my work is part-time on weekends and Friday evenings, all the way to Monday I am on call. I may come in two to three times a week. I do rounds with the staff. I go to the medical floor, I go to the ICU to see the families and be available. Also, if there is a need to teach a class on directives with the end-of-life choices, I do that. They want me to do more with comfort care and transfer to hospice because that is my strongest wing. Hopefully, I will do training for translators in Spanish as I am fluent in Spanish.

What to you most enjoy about the hospital setting?
I enjoy working with families and the continuity of care. When someone comes into the ER and they go back, by the time I get to them they are ready to go. On the ICU, they have to stay longer, and I can just get in there to sit down and talk with them. When they are being told about the diagnoses, with the possible problems, then I come in to help them process that. I like that part. Like the other day I talked 45 minutes with a lady in the ICU. She was just talking about life. She was 87. She talked about how she met her husband. I think she felt she was in a space with someone who was actively listening to her story. That is what I really like to do and enjoy most in the hospital setting.

As you look back, is there somebody you remember that really affirmed your love for health care work?
What was most important was when I went to hospice, where we were people dealing with the finality of dying. I will always remember the husband of a dying patient. He was a presidential speech writer for two or three presidents. I went to his home. His wife was very well known in Chicago. Their son was a military pilot, another son was a prominent lawyer. I worked with them for almost three weeks. To see how they were dealing with all that after all they had accomplished in life, they were facing something most of us will face in our lifetimes.

No matter where you are in life, there is a common ground that we are all going to end up with. I think that was a seal for me to work in this field, to deal with people. Even here, a few weeks ago I baptized two people when I was on call. A man’s wife was really panicky, and they wanted him to be saved before he died.

What about for people who are not particularly religious? Or who practice a religion other than Christianity?
Our service is non-denominational. It is for everybody, not only for people of faith.

I would like chaplains presented to patients as part of the team approach to treatment. You do not ask patients if they need a doctor. It should be presented like it is part of the teamwork that we do to approach the whole body – mind, body and spirit. Chaplains are here for you and your family. We do not come only because you or a loved one is dying.

The Rev. Zacarias C. Buhuro

Zac Buhuro earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy in Maputo at St. Augustine Philosophical Seminary. He also has a Masters of Divinity degree and an MA in Theology with concentration in bio ethics from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is ecclesiastically endorsed by the Catholic Church and a member of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. He attends St. Anthony Catholic Church in Casper and is fluent in four languages: Ndau, Portuguese, Spanish and English. 

Wyoming Medical Center’s interfaith pastoral services are available at any time. Staff chaplains are on-site 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays while evening and weekends are covered by on-call chaplains. To request a chaplain, speak to your nurse or call the paging operator at 577-7201.

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