If Barry Hammond ever has to spend time recovering in hospital, he hopes to speak frankly to someone about spirituality without mentioning religion or God.
"I just think that true human care is exactly what we need," says Hammond, a member of the Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba.
"That would mean we would emphasize creative acts people have done in their past. That would mean terrestrial things rather than extraterrestial things."
Accommodating all types of religion -- and no religion at all -- is one of the goals of a new strategic plan for spiritual health care in Manitoba. Unveiled last month, the plan recognizes that spirituality is essential to wellness, explains the provincial spiritual health care co-ordinator.
"For the first time, in print, it spells out the full range of diversity and what that means," explains Karen Toole.
"Spiritual health care is provided for people of all religions and no religious background. That means that all atheists, agnostics, humanists and people who don't have a belief system can ask someone, 'What does my life mean?' "
She says the 24-page document sets a common plan for all spiritual care providers in Manitoba as well as establishing that spiritual care is an essential component of health care.
The strategic plan, to be implemented over the next four years, calls for increased awareness and education around spiritual health care and improved access to spiritual health care providers.
"Once a person's medical need has been addressed, you find the mental, social and spiritual needs emerging," says Toole, a former Free Press faith-page columnist.
Still called chaplains in some settings, spiritual health care providers are trained to be compassionate listeners with people in times of medical crisis, loss and death.
"We try to be very, very careful not to impose, but be there whenever needed," explains Rev. Gerry Ward, director of spiritual care and mission at St. Boniface General Hospital.
"It's a journey. We hop aboard people's train for a while, chat with them and make them comfortable."
Part of making them comfortable means understanding the specific rituals and practices that are important to the wide spectrum of faith groups in Manitoba, explains a retired spiritual health care provider now organizing two panel discussions for the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
"There is a realization that we do share common ground in faith communities and that we need intentional ways we can care for each other," says Ron Long, chairman of the council's spiritual health committee.
The panel discussions take place at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 17 and 24 at Misericordia Place Personal Care Home, 44 Furby St. People from eight religious traditions, including Hammond, who represents humanists, are scheduled to speak.
For Ward, a Roman Catholic priest, providing spiritual care in a hospital setting means walking with people on whatever path they are on and respecting practices and customs in those traditions.
"We're careful to know what we're doing in terms of faith and in terms of faith and culture so we don't step on toes," says Ward.
Sometimes that also means adapting religious ceremonies for a hospital setting. Ward says aboriginal elders use sweet grass in some of their ceremonies, but don't burn it inside hospital buildings because of health and safety concerns. Roman Catholic priests don't burn incense in hospital. The hospital also has a Muslim prayer room in addition to its chapel.
Next week, the hospital is offering free noon-hour discussion groups about a variety of faith traditions to mark Spiritual Care Week. They take place at the hospital's Sam Cohen Auditorium.
Although spiritual health care providers are ready to talk with patients and their families about the meaning and purpose of life, what's most important is just being there with people in crisis, says Ward.
"Sometimes when we're with the family, (our conversation) has nothing to do with spirituality, but it is support for people in crisis," he says.
"And we have more time (to talk) than the medical staff would have."
On the web
The Manitoba government's strategic plan on spiritual health care is available online at: www.gov.mb./ca/healthyliving/mh/hhs.html