A faith in God & a heart for people

Chaplain Nahum Melendez warmly greets patient and veteran Robert McGar as he rests in the Progressive Care Unit at Central Texas Medical Center. Melendez has been the chaplain of the medical center since January of 2016 and is known among staff for making himself available to anyone who needs his services. DAILY RECORD PHOTOS BY DENISE CATHEY

Editor’s note: This is the twelfth part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community. 

Nahum Melendez is the chaplain at CTMC. My appointment with him was for 1 p.m. As is my habit, I arrived a few minutes early and was told that he was in a luncheon, a working luncheon, as it were. The appointed time came and went — but not for long. 

He made a breathless entry to the small room to which I had been dispatched, introduced himself and suggested we conduct our business in the spacious lobby, rather than the cramped space to which we had been relegated. 

Once settled, I posed my usual introduction, “Tell me about yourself.” 

Melendez’s response was, “First, tell me what you are trying to do.”

I explained my project—interviewing ministers in San Marcos and attempting to illustrate what they bring to the city. And, his position is unique, I suggested, because he serves an ever-changing population.

Melendez began, “I have experience in the congregational setting and as a chaplain. I can tell you how I feel about both areas. First, in the conventional ministry, that’s about long-term relationships. One sees and serves a congregation he gets to know. And, that’s the beauty of it. I connected with numerous families, established relationships and served the spiritual needs of many from day to day. It’s a wonderful ministry. 

“In the military — I spent about 10 years in the Marines — I enlisted for a program where I spent four years active duty and four years inactive. During the inactive portion of my Marine tour, I did my theological studies in Puerto Rico.”

As an aside, he also related that Puerto Rico is where he met his wife.

I was prompted to ask, “Are you from Puerto Rico?”

Melendez is from Maryland and further conversation revealed that for different reasons and at different times, we both lived in the same general vicinity of Rockville, Maryland. Small world. 

Melendez did four years of theological studies and three years of seminary, following which, he came back to Silver Spring , Maryland. He relates that he found himself so busy coordinating programs, being an administrator, and other chores that took him away from his love of helping people.

“I noticed a gap,” he said. “Something was not clicking. Where are the people I’m supposed to be seeing? How am I helping others?”

From seminary, Melendez discovered that he much preferred working with people in crisis, or suffering, or in pain. Following Jesus’ pattern of going to the people in pain, the people who were suffering, the people in need, Melendez sought a chaplaincy.

“So, I saw that as my call,” Melendez related. 

When the chaplain is needed, he knows a patient or the family is in some sort of crisis.

To get back to Melendez’s path to becoming a chaplain. After finishing his studies, he came back to Silver Spring, where he did parish work for two years. At the urging of his wife to pursue higher education, they moved to Michigan.

“As I read and studied the gospels, I began to recognize that Jesus did not come here to do an easy job – to be among the healthy and successful. He walked among the poor. He touched the lepers. He healed the sick. He associated with the sinners.”

“It is true, he taught at times. He spent time in prayer alone. But the bulk of his activity was to ‘go where they were.’”

About this time, Melendez began to reevaluate his call and he did that through a program called clinical pastoral education. He explained the program, using the medical model to illustrate that one can graduate from seminary as a pastor and go into the general ministry, or one can go into the clinical pastoral program and pursue a specialty, i.e., general medicine, cardiology.

“So, I took the specialists path,” Melendez said. “My first experience was with a two-year-old girl that had been rushed to the hospital with a urinary dysfunction. She had tubes protruding from many parts of her body and she was in great pain. How can I not be here for her, I asked myself.

“There is something about being next to the person and feeling what they feel and crying with them and walking with them and letting them know somebody cares.”

Melendez then enlightened me with the explanation that “chaplain” comes from the Latin word, “capella” and “capella” means cloak. He then referred to Biblical instructions concerning cloaks. If someone asks for your cloak, you give it to them. 

“Jesus was a chaplain,” Melendez exclaimed. And a short dialogue concerning cloaks ensued. Jesus instructing us to give our cloak to one who asks for it, the woman worshiping him by touching the hem of His cloak, the soldiers casting dice for his cloak at the foot of the cross.

My personal reaction to that exchange was: Melendez is always the chaplain. There is no role playing; no wavering; no doubt about his call to the chaplain ministry. 

It’s time I emphasized a major characteristic of Melendez. He has a great sense of humor and it seems to surface most noticeably when he is in the midst of a self-deprecating exchange. As a member of the army, I occasionally reminded him of the superiority of that arm of the service over the Marines. His boisterous laugh at such blasphemy turns heads in the hospital lobby.

Melendez’s approach to his calling has a distinctive military flavor. 

“I never think about this denomination or that, this race or that, age, gender, or any other category you can name,” Melendez said. “I have a mission. And the more I see of the chaplaincy, the more I’m sure this is where I’m supposed to be.

“I engage with their feelings. I engage with their emotions. I want people to know it’s OK to feel emotions.”

“So how does that affect your stress level? How do you justify the two-year-old with tubes everywhere and the notion of a kind and loving God?” I queried.

”That is what we call a theodicy question. It’s a question where we are trying to make sense of the notion that if God is so good, why is there so much evil in this world?

“My way of answering that,” Melendez said, “is to be reminded that God gave us free will and God is open to our using that free will.

“God allows you to use that free will because he loves you. He is not going to make you a robot by taking over your life. If he controlled you, what kind of witness would that be to the rest of the world?

“And, he allows the consequences of your actions here on earth.”

I interjected that one of the most profound Bible lessons of my experience was an explanation and understanding of the need for Judas in the life of Christ.

Melendez explained his religion, using the matrimonial model. “It is not a piece of paper that keeps me married to my wife,” he said. “It is the persistence of getting up in the morning and saying to the world, ‘I’m going to stay married to this person, regardless of the value of his/her accomplishments today.’ And, that is my way of dealing with bad things happening to good people.”

I brought up the issue of the different practices and traditions and beliefs that we find in the Christian faith.  

Melendez responded, “I’m not only providing care for Christians, I’m providing care for Buddhists, I’m providing care for Muslims. So, I don’t let religion stand in the way of care that I provide. I can deal with any of the beliefs, including atheists. I look upon religion as any practice that gives meaning and value to life.

“If you ride a motorcycle, you feel fulfilled — the wind hitting your face evokes feelings, emotions. I am a Christian,” Melendez said. “When I worship God, I am moved. I experience an emotional high. And what that means to me is that I’m able to experience a cross-section of faith, even with an atheist. 

“For instance, to illustrate my approach, assume the atheist has been in the hospital a week with no calls, no visitors, no family. He doesn’t need someone to come to his bedside and say, ‘If you repent, you will be saved.’ Many theologians seem to believe they have an upwardly direct connection with God and a cross-section connection with the people. I see all of us connected to God.”

“So, when do you encounter difficulty, as a man of religion, trying to bring comfort, peace, understanding and compassion to the smorgasbord of believers that you serve?” I inquired.

The question evoked a hardy laugh, as Melendez said. “With those of my own religion,” he responded. To clarify, I suggested we were discussing Christianity. 

“Oh, yes,” Melendez responded. “In my denomination, we are vaccinated with the doctrine. It is rather narrow and we forget that God is multi-faceted. He thinks in many ways and allows us to do the same.”

Melendez explained that God allows us all to experience the same circumstances in much the same way and the resulting feelings are empathy. He expressed his own empathy with humankind when he revealed his belief that every person has something of value to give and is, in fact, something of value. 

A hospital is a contradiction in so many ways. It is a place of healing filled with our most ill. Inhabitants seeking comfort in a house of pain and the most skilled in the healing profession can be helpless in the face of divine will. It is a place where death is a bedfellow with the birth of new life. 

Nahum Melendez’s devotion to his mission, his understanding of human needs, his compassion for the complex population of the hospital and his uplifting presence are inspiring. Spend an hour with him and come away wondering, “How does he do this job?”

I think his response to that question would be: “How can I not do this job?”

San Marcos Daily Record

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