When Rev. Earl Munyan called on a Bayonne couple last week as part of his duties as a counselor for Hospice Comfort Care of New Jersey, he expected grief, perhaps even a confession, but he didn’t expect the couple to ask him to marry them.
“I was visiting one of my patients and went into the usual things with them and tried to get to know them,” he said. “At some point, I share scripture with them from the Bible. I ask them if they want Communion. I usually ask if they have any questions for me, and the [man] – who I thought was the husband of the patient – asked if I would be able to marry them. That’s never happened to me before.”
Although relatively new to his duties – he has been undertaking duties as a hospice counselor since April – he has been a minister for decades, dealing with people at their most vulnerable, giving them comfort when they face life and death situations.
Hospice counselors typically comfort and aid those who are terminally ill.
Munyan works as part of a team that is designed to help care for patients, families, and the bereaved as they struggle with end-of-life decisions. This is not designed to postpone death, but to help patients and family live as fully as possible during those final days.
“My goal is to give them the spiritual support they need and help them get the sense of being in peace with God.” – Rev. Earl Munyan
Hospice Comfort Care of New Jersey is a for-profit company that can work with patients when doctors write prescriptions for the care.
“Unfortunately, there are a number of our patients that don’t want to see me,” he said. “I think it’s the stigma of ‘He’s coming; and the Grim Reaper is right behind him.’”
Some others simply do not believe they are dying.
Roots in Bayonne
Munyan lives in Bayonne, although he originally grew up in South Jersey and moved to Perth Amboy after he was married. After he moved to Bayonne, he discovered that his grandfather had been born here.
“I knew my grandmother was from Jersey City, but I didn’t know I had any roots in Bayonne,” he said.
He had an idea that he might like to take up a career in broadcast journalism, but then when he was about 15, he got a sense that God wanted him to minister. He attended Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania.
He served as the pastor of the First Assembly of God Church in Bayonne, and has been associate pastor there since 1997. Currently he serves as pastor at a church in Newark.
“I never did hospice work before, but I did plenty of funerals and plenty of the counseling that follows it,” he said.
As the pastor of a church, he said he needed other work that he could make a living at. He said he applied to a number of jobs, such as UPS and Iron Mounting, but the hospice work seemed a perfect fit.
“My wife is thrilled,” he said. “This fits my personality well. I’m a people person, and this was right up my alley.”
Taking care of the dying and their families
Hospice care takes care of those who are near death but who are often sent home or to other institutions where they might pass away with family or in the comfort of their own homes.
“The agency gets referrals from doctors, who prescribe a patient to hospice care,” he said. “I call and make an appointment.”
He is the only full-time chaplain on the staff, he said.
“Right now I can handle the number of referrals we get,” he said. “There is a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and two directors – a director of patient care and executive director of administration.
As chaplain, Munyan travels all over Hudson County and even into portions of Essex County.
“When I was hired, I was told I could go anywhere between here in Trenton,” he said. “We have clients as far south as Asbury Park and Springfield.”
He typically travels to places in Hudson County such as Bayonne, Jersey City, Union City, West New York, North Bergen, and Newark.
He starts out by introducing himself to the patient.
“I thank them for opening their doors to me,” he said. “I’m here to get to know them. I tell them I’m there to give them the spiritual support they need. That usually gets the conversation going. I ask them to tell me something about themselves, where they grew up. It there is a husband and wife there together, I ask them how they met. That usually opens up the flood gates with stories. I think it brings some walls down too. After that, I’ll ask them if it’ll be okay if I share something from the bible. I usually turn to the Psalms because these are usually full of agony and hope. When I read to them, I feel encouraged by the end. I feel if I share, it will come back at me.”
He also asks at the beginning if they would like to receive Communion.
“If they do, I have a portable Communion kit,” he said.
The denomination might matter.
“It depends on the person. I introduce myself as a Christian chaplain who serves the whole Christian community whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Baptist or other. It doesn’t matter to me. But some it matters to. Some – such as Catholics – tell me they don’t feel ready, that they haven’t been to confession. Others might say they never received their first Communion.”
He often asks if they are part of a local congregation and he offers to contact their church to see if a pastor there might also visit the home.
“I can only visit once or twice a month,” he said.
Language and culture changed his approach
Not a native Spanish speaking person, Munyan has had to rely on two years of Spanish he learned in high school as well as what he has picked up since then to communicate with people he visits in places such as Union City, West New York, or Jersey City.
“When I went into college I hung out with a number of Puerto Ricans. I started listening to people in Spanish, took the little that I knew and tried to use it,” he said. “I’ve alienated myself plenty of times, looked a little foolish, but I got back up. I still do sometimes. I was also a youth pastor at a Spanish Church in Perth Amboy. My wife is also Puerto Rican.”
Perth Amboy, according to the census from when he was still there, was about 80 percent Spanish-speaking.
Although he has steps he takes when he goes to meet with people, sometimes he has to adjust this to deal with the culture.
“I’m dealing with various nationalities which have their own nuances. One of the first questions I asked when I meet people is, where they are from, where is your family?” he said. “In West New York and Union City, there are a lot of Cuban people, although there are a number of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, people from Central American, even South America.”
This is a kind of ice breaker that gives him a chance to get to know something about them.
“The next question is what is a person’s religion,” he said, not meaning denomination so much as whether they are Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
“Sometimes people tell me things that they’ve had in their heart a long time,” he said. “Confessions or about a grudge they’ve held, or something they’ve not been able to make right.”
Going into people’s lives at a critical moment can also be hard on him. But he said over the years, he’s had to deal with enough situations where he had develop strategies for coping with his own feelings, mechanisms to hold it together
“It isn’t any good my falling apart when I’m trying to keep other people from falling apart,” he said.
But there are moments when things get to him, such as getting an email about someone who has passed, and recalled one a few weeks prior to the interview.
“My heart just sank,” he said. “I knew the end was near, but this person was walking around one day and then gone.”
On the phone in his office and under a piece of art depicting the tree of life, Munyan makes one of the inevitable calls to a family member of someone who has passed, trying to console the survivor with positive news about the person’s life, trying to ease some of the other concerns that usually come in such situations.
“Generally, we call about 10 days after the passing to see how they are doing,” he said.
He asks a number of questions that give him a sense of how they are handling this situation.
He asks them for an address where he can send some information, contacts them every few months for the next year or so to see if they have held up.
His office will be establishing a grief support group starting on Oct. 12 at their offices on Broadway
Munyan doesn’t operate in a vacuum; he is part of a team.
“All of us work together to help people live out the last of their lives at home with their family surrounded by the people they love and who love them,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.