Mercy’s Long History of Honoring Diverse Backgrounds

March 14, 2017

A few years ago, Julie Jones witnessed firsthand the respect Mercy employees have for the different backgrounds of co-workers, patients and visitors after the unexpected death of a co-worker.

This particular co-worker was from India and of the Hindu faith. Since his family was back in his home country and had few financial resources, co-workers raised thousands of dollars to transport his body back to India for a proper burial.

They also held a prayer service with his team members, which included a chant for peace performed by other co-workers of the Hindu faith.

“It was one of those moments where I felt so proud to be part of Mercy because we helped him have a proper burial and our interfaith prayer offered his colleagues comfort, and honored everyone’s religious traditions,” said Jones, vice president of mission and ministry at Mercy. “I remember thinking that this is just what Mercy is.”

A Tradition of Dignity and Justice

This tradition of respect for individuals of all backgrounds is deeply rooted in scripture, the Catholic tradition and the beliefs and practices of Mercy’s founders — Catherine McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy.

When the Sisters of Mercy first came to the United States from Ireland in 1843, it was with a mission to help the sick, economically poor and those who were vulnerable to discrimination. They did this by building hospitals and schools and by also honoring the dignity of everyone they encountered.

“If you look at the early tradition of the Sisters of Mercy in the United States who came over with the waves of Catholic immigrants, they started ministries to serve the needs of the community,” Jones said. “When they saw a need, they met it, regardless of a person’s religious beliefs. Through their ministry, they trusted that people would see God in their work.”

As the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the nation serving multiple states, Mercy’s mission is to bring to life the healing ministry of Jesus through compassionate care and exceptional service. This is achieved in several ways, including honoring the dignity of every person and pledging to be in right relationships with one another, regardless of a person’s social, cultural or religious traditions.

“One of the great beauties and joys about Mercy is that we all understand that we may worship in a different way each week and pray differently, but we are all worshipping in the name of the same God,” said Tom Edelstein, vice president of mission and ethics for Mercy in Oklahoma. “Faith brings us together under the umbrella of God’s love and we see that every day at Mercy.”

Prayer rugs are available in the interfaith room at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.
Prayer rugs are available in the interfaith room at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.

Respect in Action

Mercy treats patients and hires employees from diverse backgrounds and religious beliefs. At many of Mercy’s facilities, religious texts are available for different religions based on the composition of the local community.  

Here are several examples of how Mercy has embraced people from different faith traditions and cultures beyond those of the Roman Catholic faith:

Culturally and religiously sensitive care:

  • During Ramadan — a month-long period of strict fasting from sunrise to sunset for Muslims — Mercy dietitians have worked with patients to ensure they respect their traditions while also receiving the nutrients they need for healing.
  • Mercy co-workers have arranged for a mohel to perform a ceremonial bris at the hospital on a baby’s eighth day of life, which is a Jewish tradition. The mohel receives temporary hospital privileges and a Mercy physician is on hand during the procedure.
  • Mercy provides advance directives and declination of blood product forms as requested since many Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in accepting blood products.
  • Several of Mercy’s communities are home to an Amish population. For Amish patients, their care decisions are often made by the whole community rather than on an individual or family basis. Mercy co-workers work closely with the Amish communities as they make these health care decisions.

Prayer requests:

  • A young woman who self-identified as a non-denominational Christian loved to go to church on Sundays, but was unable to since she was hospitalized and was dying from cancer. Mercy co-workers arranged for her church to come to the hospital and perform a church service.
  • Practicing Muslims are required to pray several times per day as part of their religion. Some Mercy facilities have found designated spaces for patients, families and Mercy co-workers to have a private place to pray, and many of them have prayer rugs and copies of the Quran on hand.
  • Many of Mercy’s facilities offer battery-operated Shabbat candles, which are lit on Friday evening before sunset to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath.

End-of-life traditions:

  • In one Mercy community, a man of American Indian descent was in the intensive care unit and was dying. The Mercy team arranged to have a medicine man come to the hospital and lead a procession with family members from a prayer circle outside into the patient’s room. The ceremony included burning sage in a small, wooden box and using the feather of a large bird of prey to touch the patient and all pieces of equipment in the patient’s room.
  • Mercy has assisted Buddhist families in the ritual cleaning of a patient’s body prior to death and, upon death, the placement of candles, flowers and a Buddhist statue at the head of the bed.
  • To meet the needs of a young patient in the intensive care unit who was dying, the Mercy team arranged for a Russian Orthodox priest to come to the hospital and perform the complete rites and rituals for the patient, which included candles, incense, oils and chants.

Honoring the dead:

  • Mercy co-workers allowed the body of a patient of American Indian descent who had recently died to stay in the hospital room with the windows open for a period of time so his spirit could be released.
  • After a Muslim patient died and was moved to Mercy’s morgue, Mercy co-workers honored the family’s requests to prepare the body with ritual bathing, wrap the body and pray for the patient according to their traditions.
  • For patients of the Jewish faith who have died, Mercy has honored the requests of families for the funeral home to pick up the patient’s body directly from the hospital room rather than taking the body to the morgue.
The interfaith room at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith welcomes all.
The interfaith room at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith welcomes all.

Serving Others With an Open Mind and Open Heart

To commemorate Pope Francis’ “Holy Year of Mercy” last year, Mercy Hospital Fort Smith raised about $600,000 from the community to renovate the hospital’s chapel and create several sacred spaces for patients, visitors and co-workers to meditate and pray. One of those rooms is designated as an “interfaith prayer room,” and has copies of religious texts from several different religions and prayer rugs.

“Pope Francis was opening up the door of mercy to all and we recognized that we needed to open the door, not just of the physical space, but the door of our hearts to those in need,” said Martin Schreiber, vice president of mission for Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.

One example of this occurred after a Mercy nurse saw a physician of Islamic faith praying in the interfaith prayer room and asked him if something was wrong since he was praying. The physician told the nurse, who is a Christian, that in his faith he is required to pray several times a day. At that point, the nurse asked the physician if he would like to go back into the interfaith prayer room and pray together.

“This example really goes back to what the Sisters of Mercy started with, which is a sense of oneness,” Schreiber said.

It is mercy in action.

“Because we believe God created each person with dignity, we honor every person and we come together as one in faithful service of others,” Jones said. “Mercy is not something we can turn on and off. It is who we are.”


Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems in 2017 by Truven, an IBM Watson Health company, serves millions annually. Mercy includes 44 acute care and specialty (heart, children’s, orthopedic and rehab) hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.