Taqwa Mahrani Surapati has found her calling providing emotional and spiritual support to others. Currently an interfaith Muslim chaplain at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, California, she is also pursuing a master’s degree in Islamic studies. Here she speaks about the emotional and spiritual trials of her profession and the role of family in overcoming life’s challenges. As told to Afia R Fitriati.
At its heart, for me, being a chaplain is being a Muslim, offering generosity and kindness. It often reminds me of the chapter in the Qur’an about The Small Kindnesses, Al-Ma’un. A chaplain is someone who gives emotional and spiritual support within an institution. It could be in hospitals, universities, the military, the police department or the state prison system.
Being a chaplain in a hospital means being involved in patient care: doing visitation, conversing with patients, listening to them or praying with them while working with other members of the healthcare team. My role as chaplain does not stop with the patients and their families and friends, but also extends to the hospital staff, as their jobs caring for the sick can be hard and stressful.
The patients I visit sometimes need a heart-to-heart conversation; at other times a silent presence is better. My focus is on evoking feelings of understanding, acceptance and resilience in patients, and helping them to find meaning in their illnesses.
The hardest thing sometimes is to witness prolonged suffering in patients or grieving families left behind by their loved ones. One of my duties is to accompany the patient and their family during the dying process.
A memorable moment on duty was when I witnessed and guided a Muslim cancer patient from Iran to say the shahada in her dying moments. I was reciting the Qur’an with the family, when I suddenly realised that her moment was approaching and the shahada needed to be said. The patient was listening and sometimes opening her eyes. Not long afterward she died with all her family surrounding her. It was truly a humbling experience to be present with them. They were mourning and grieving the loss with such grace and dignity. The nurse later mentioned that her body had responded to our recital of the Qur’an; when we recited, her blood pressure went down, and she passed on peacefully.
I have always been lucky and blessed to have my ibu. My mother is a wonderful person who taught me many lessons in life; the most lasting one is to have a sense of humour. She taught me not to be afraid of who I am. She could see an issue from different perspectives and be flexible. Her conviction of the power of God and His promises rubbed off on me. She encouraged me to be an architect, so, being a dutiful first daughter, I became one.
I met the love of my life, my husband Aldrin, on campus in the wonderful city of Bandung, Indonesia. He was studying electrical engineering at the time. We got married and have two sons, Ken, 19, and Rama, 16. Ken is an incoming sophomore at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and Rama will start his junior year in high school this fall. Both boys are very handsome, kind and generous. I love them so much and am so proud of them both.
When my family moved to the United States 16 years ago, I learned how to volunteer in the community. Aldrin works as an engineer in a Silicon Valley company; it was his work that brought us to the US. I began volunteering at my children’s nursery school and continued until they reached high school. A sister from Malaysia asked me to join the Muslim volunteer group visiting patients at Stanford Hospital. After years of volunteering, I finally decided to take the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) units, also at Stanford. CPE education trains you to be an interfaith chaplain. It means that I am prepared to meet other patients from different religions, within the boundary of my own religion. This helped me develop my identity as a Muslim chaplain. My goal is to become a board-certified chaplain, insha’Allah, where I would be joining a professional chaplain group.
I have to be careful not to carry sadness into my personal life. The work can be draining and tiring, and I need to have a boundary between my personal and professional lives. In the past it devastated my husband to see me cry at home, because it made him feel helpless. I help my family members to understand that sometimes I can’t help coming home feeling sad and melancholic. Sometimes my tears mean that I am only human and need to process my emotions further; other times they reflect my gratefulness for the safe, healthy and loving environment that we share as a family.
The contrast between my hijab and the title on my nametag sometimes causes different reactions from people with preconceived ideas of what a chaplain is. The title comes from the Christian tradition, although recently it is not uncommon to find chaplains from different faith traditions other than Christianity. When facing people from different backgrounds, I have to be authentic and genuine. For instance if I am with a Baptist Christian family I pray with them, sometimes opening my prayers by saying: “In the name of God the Most Merciful and Compassionate, dear God, we are here standing together in Your presence…”
I have come to a conclusion on what I can do or what I cannot and will not do with people of other faiths. In my heart I believe that every wish and prayer said and whispered toward God is indeed presented to The Almighty. For me it does not matter if the person before me is a Christian or a Jew, a Buddhist or a Hindu; when we talk to God and the Divine, it means Allah to me.
In death I have seen great courage and love between family members. Their faith in God carried them through times of hardship. As Muslims we believe in holding tight to Allah’s promise of awaiting a patient believer. We have a complete belief in life after death.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play