Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, OP
Executive Director of the Dominican Sisters Conference
ON THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN DEATH AND LIFE
Sister Xiomara Méndez-Hernández, OP, A Dominican sister and a CTU graduate, was on duty at Loyola University Medical Center when the very first COVID-19 patient died in that hospital. A moment she will never forget. Her role as chaplain led her to accompany the grieving family through the harrowing reality of the death of a loved one in a time of pandemic. Contacting the funeral home, dealing with the limitations on public ceremonies, and finding alternatives for the family to grieve their loss in such painful circumstances. “The shift has been huge because the funeral homes only allow ten people for a certain amount of time,” Sr. Xiomara noted. This “shift into survival mode” would play out as weeks turned into months. “And that was the first one. I didn’t imagine the impact of that first day in our hospital until it happened again and again and again.”
One of the most difficult aspects for Sr. Xiomara continues to be that, while the virus is indiscriminate, the most vulnerable population impacted in her hospital have been immigrants. As a certified bilingual staff member, Sr. Xiomara is called on to minister to a diverse population—across the boundaries of nationalities and faiths. “Because of my exposure to the world of CTU, I was able to minister to every family, no matter if they were of Asian descent, European descent, African descent or Latino. All of them are God’s children and all deserve respect and love.”
Sister Xiomara points to her preparation at CTU as essential for her the demanding multi-cultural role she now plays, reaching across so many boundaries to serve people in need. She learned through her training “to respond instead of react and to be a listening and compassionate presence, because every conversation is a crisis of meaning. Diversity is our normal.” Sr. Xiomara has witnessed first-hand the frontlines of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice our county now experiences.
Being plunged into her chaplaincy work at this unusual time also brought home to Sr. Xiomara the power of technology in hospital ministry. She recalls an incident of a 92-year-old man intubated in the ICU with dangerously low blood pressure and facing an uncertain prognosis. Through tele-chaplaincy, using an iPad, Sr. Xiomara was able to connect the man to his wife, who has been unable to enter the hospital. Within three hours of their electronic prayer session together, the patient’s blood pressure was stable and less than four days later he was out of ICU. Sr. Xiomara knows that the video call did what medicine alone had been unable to do, “I believe in the power of love for healing.”
“I am so proud to say that CTU is my alma mater. It helped me to put together my personal and spiritual experience in a context that made me open to the work of ministry.” On choosing chaplaincy, Sr. Xiomara gives credit to a course at CTU on the spirituality of human suffering. It was in this class that she learned not to ask ‘Why?’ but ‘How?’.
“Many times, the ‘Why?’ has no answer. It’s like a closed room with no windows in it,” continued Sr. Xiomara. “The ‘How?’ can help us to go deeper into our experience of suffering, knowing that there is always a little hope that God provides. And that I learned at CTU, and I will always be grateful.”