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Dialogue: A conversation with Virgil Fry

HOUSTON — Nobody plans to end up at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, battling a terminal disease.
Each year, though, thousands of church members diagnosed with cancer seek treatment at the world-renowned Houston hospital.
Often hundreds or thousands of miles from home, these cancer patients with Church of Christ backgrounds discover a “lifeline” in Virgil Fry and his team of hospital chaplains and trained volunteers.
Fry, who with his wife, Caryl, received Abilene Christian University’s 2006 Christian Service Award, has served as executive director of Lifeline Chaplaincy since 1985.
Fry, who with his wife, Caryl, received Abilene Christian University’s 2006 Christian Service Award, has served as executive director of Lifeline Chaplaincy since 1985.
Lifeline is a ministry of Churches of Christ to the seriously ill in the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex. It includes M.D. Anderson and a dozen other hospitals.
Fry said Lifeline — which expanded to Dallas hospitals last year — has a twofold mission: to provide ministry to the sick and to train others who feel called to this area of ministry. Its Web site at www.lifelinechaplaincy.org provides more details.
Members of the First Colony church in Sugar Land, Fry and his wife have a 27-year-old son, Kyle, who is married to Melanie; a 24-year-old daughter, Kacie; and an 8-month-old granddaughter, Mycayla.
Your first experience as a hospital chaplain came while you were a Bible and religion student at Abilene Christian in the mid-1970s. How did that come about?
While doing my master’s degree, I was asked to be the assistant chaplain at the Abilene State School, a residential facility for the mentally retarded. At that time, it was a facility that had about 1,800 full-time residents. And there was a Baptist chaplain there who took me under his wings. He kept saying, “You seem to be good at this.” And I kept saying, “No, I’m not.”
But even though I was a religion and Bible major, I knew I didn’t hear the call of the pulpit. Of course, in the ’70s, you didn’t have as many options. You just kind of followed the track. Now, you can specialize in youth ministry or education and all that. Anyway, it really clicked for me.
When did you decide to make a career out of hospital chaplaincy?
My experience in Abilene kind of planted the seed. From there, when I finished my degree, I went to Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and spent a year in a clinical pastoral education program — a post-graduate work if you want to go into professional chaplaincy. So I had that under my belt. Then I was with the Pipeline Road church in Hurst, Texas, as an associate minister for youth and education for about eight years. While I was in Hurst, the churches in Houston began their search for a chaplain, and I was one of the few who had any clinical pastoral education. So, that’s how I ended up here.

When you got here, did you find that there was a lot of need for a chaplain to care for Church of Christ members in the hospital?
My target base was M.D. Anderson Cancer Center because it had the most out-of-town people and the longest-term treatment. It’s still that way. People are here for months and months, sometimes years. So that was the starting place, and I just kind of immersed myself in that culture.
How many patients with Church of Christ backgrounds receive treatment at M.D. Anderson?
Inpatient is about 15 to 20 a day. Outpatient, it could be 50 to 75 a day.
Do you see only patients who list Church of Christ as their religious affiliation?
That’s our primary focus. We can go see others if we’re referred to them, and we’re happy to do that. If you were to call me and say, “My aunt from wherever is here, will you go see her?” we can go see her.
What role do your dozens of trained volunteers play at the hospitals?
They are actually badged and sent to the hospitals. Many times now, they’re the frontline folks. They’re the ones who initially meet people when they get to the hospital, and they’re the ones who welcome people and make sure they know there’s a Lifeline Chaplaincy program. That frees me, Paul Riddle here in Houston and Jesse Stroup in Dallas to focus on the most critical needs.
What kind of needs are those?
That’s people on the front end of a diagnosis when it’s pretty traumatic. Or it may be people who have just gotten bad news of what’s going to be happening. Or people who have been dismissed from the hospital and told, “You need to go home; there’s nothing else we can do.”
It’s often people who are going through spiritual turmoil. For some people, the illness is just the tip of the iceberg of what they’re dealing with. Illness brings everything to a head in our lives and helps us focus on what’s most important. But that’s also a very painful and grieving process.
Do you also minister to the families and loved ones of the patients?
Absolutely. In fact, there are times when the patient’s needs are pretty well being taken care of. But many times, the family or the caregivers also need the support.
What is the secret of spiritual pastoral care?
To me, the real quality of what makes spiritual pastoral care is engaged listening — learning to listen really to what’s going on with that person, rather than walking in and feeling like you’ve got to do all the talking. It’s more joining them where they are, in their path, and asking how God comes into that. So, it’s a relationship deal. It’s much more important than any magic words or running errands and doing the things that are very important. But often times, it’s the loneliness of the disease that gets to us.
Do you love coming to work?
Actually, I do. And that’s true of the people we have on staff. This is really something they enjoy doing. This is not a job for anybody who’s here. They really do go the second and third mile, because they realize, this is sacred territory we’re working on. People trust us to be a part of their journey while they’re in crisis. And we want to treat them with the same respect we would want.
Are most patients happy to see you?
Most are very welcoming. They enjoy the fact that there’s a spiritual connection and it’s somebody from their faith group.
Is what you do what the local minister would do if these out-of-town church members were at home?
It’s basically an extension of exactly that. That’s even true for Houston patients because this is a pretty spread-out city with 550 square miles. So even people from here don’t always get the support that they may want or need from the churches.
Does Lifeline receive a lot of support from local congregations?
To me, one of the real pleasures of this work is the unifying nature of it. It’s one of the few things that people can’t argue with. This brings people together. In Houston, we have about 25 churches on a regular basis that support us. It’s from all across the spectrum, maybe people who would never walk into each other’s buildings or worship together. But for Lifeline, they come together. We all seem to agree that Matthew 25 is pivotal to being disciples of Jesus.
Your wife has been undergoing kidney dialysis at home for several months now. Has your background helped you meet her needs?
One thing about illness is this universal reminder: We’re all mortal, and we all will face serious health issues. This isn’t just a ministry for other people. When it comes home, it’s very sobering too. So we are having to learn what it’s like to have limitations and rearrange what you consider to be a normal lifestyle.
Last year, Lifeline worked with a few Dallas-area congregations to start a chaplaincy program there. Will you consider offering Lifeline in additional cities?
Ten years ago, I would have said, “No way.” But after seeing the work in Dallas, I think it’s possible. Whether it becomes Lifeline in another city, or if we could just be the catalyst if the churches there wanted to do it, I don’t know. But yes, I think it’s very possible.

Dec. 1, 2006

Filed under: Dialogue

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