PETER Lander reckons he clocks up about five kilometres a day walking the wards of Whakatane Hospital in his job as hospital chaplain – not bad for someone who claimed to be retiring 15 years ago.
At the age of 75, Peter says his life has been lived in three parts. He was ordained as a Catholic priest at the age of 25 before marrying his wife, Lyn, 25 years later. “My life can be divided into 25 years working as a priest and, now, having been married for 25 years, so I’m very lucky to have had both,” he says.
For the past five of those years Peter has been tending to the spiritual wellbeing of patients and staff, based in the chapel nestled in the heart of the hospital. After his pastoral role in the church, then as community liaison officer for the Whakatane District Council and having also been social worker, taking on the role of volunteer chaplain’s assistant in 2014 was a natural fit.
When the paid position as the hospital chaplain became available, he applied and started two days a week. Since his job-sharing co-worker retired in July, he has taken over the job full-time, though he does not describe it as work.
“It’s not work so much as it is just relating. It’s about forming relationships and listening. I think the greatest respect you show for a person is to seriously listen to them and allow them to tell their story. I used to be focused more on mending things and solutions. I’m not anymore. I try hard to really listen and be present to others. “In many ways it is something
I have been been preparing for, for a long time.”
Peter is originally from Rotorua, though his father’s work as a policeman had the family moving to Lower Hutt and Wanganui throughout his childhood. His whakapapa connects him to Taumarunui and Ngati Hauanui.
“My brother and I are both trustees of our marae in Taumarunui. So we both have that connection. Our parents are both buried in Taumarunui.” His Maori connections have had a powerful impact on his career.
“I worked on the Maori side of the Catholic church. My first appointment was in Mt Albert Parish, then Blenheim Parish for three years, Wanganui Parish for three years and Maori Mission for the rest.” This saw him complete three year-appointments in Taranaki, Porirua, Hutt Valley, then to the local parish based in Te Puna, in which he travelled between Whakatane, Murupara and Matakana Island in a circuit.
“I’m still connected with the church, particularly the Maori side,” he says. Though he says he is by no means fluent in te reo Maori he has quite a good understanding of the language and his learning is ongoing.
It was during his time as a priest in Murupara that he reconnected with Lyn, who he would later marry. He had known her previously as a friend of her family at the time he was first ordained.
“I was ordained in Whakatane. My father had just moved here and was a senior sergeant at that stage. My mum had died, at the age of 43, but dad was here and also Catherine and John, the youngest two, were living with him. So, when I was ordained, this was my parish.”
He and Lyn met again 25 years later, when he was in Murupara and she was going to mass there. She had three children approaching their teen years and was in the process of leaving a relationship.
Getting married was not a decision either of them made lightly. “We both had to be free enough before we could come together. I had to go through the process of leaving (the church). She also had to go through the process of getting a divorce. There was quite a bit of time over that. There were people who supported us and there were people who were, well, scandalised. At that time both of us had to make a big choice and live with the consequence of that.
“I had chosen to go to the seminary, and I was doing work that I really enjoyed with people. But my decision to leave, though it was partly through love, was also a desire for companionship.
“It’s a difference that we have in later life. When we’re young we can be very idealistic and willing to make quite a few sacrifices. What I really wanted to have was family and relationships and Lyn’s children are a part of that. They have given us five grandchildren, so for having a pretty late start in that field, we’ve actually picked up on grandchildren.”
During the first years of their marriage, Lyn and Peter initially worked doing a courier run between Rotorua and Whakatane. He says it was very long hours for little financial reward.
“We did that for roughly 18 months. We decided if we could live with that pressure and with each other there was a good chance that we would be able to have a very valuable relationship.”
Together, they completed a diploma in social work through Victoria University and both became social workers. For three years Peter worked as a social worker in schools through Ngati Awa Social & Health Services, travelling to Murupara, Minginui and Te Whaiti schools.
After that he applied for a job at Whakatane District Council as safer community co-ordinator.
“That began a 10-year stint working in the community, focusing on youth and how we could reduce criminal offending. Projects I worked with are youth council, who each year would work on a project. One year we made some teen clips about responsible drinking and the effects of alcohol.”
He is also responsible for many murals around the Eastern Bay, which were aimed at preventing graffiti.
“We painted murals as a group. One of the ones I really like was over at the wharf at Ohope. The murals prevented graffiti as the people doing it have some respect for the artists. That was another very enjoyable part of my life.”
After “retiring” at 65, he continued his social work and in 2014 he completed the 10-week course to become a volunteer chaplain assistant. He says that though he is connected to the Catholic Church his role is ecumenical, which means being representative of different churches and even different religions. “We are open to all faiths and to people without faith.
Evidence of this is seen in a candle burning to one side of the hospital chapel. “This is something we did after the Christchurch shooting, Peter says. That is facing east, to Mecca.” A book below the candle lists the names of all the people who were killed in the two mosques on March 15 and their stories.
He also makes himself available to people who have no religious beliefs. “I’ve had some of my best conversations with atheists,” he says. “It’s not our role to be pushing our different churches but to listen to the needs of patients and often facilitate them to get some help or counselling or spiritual blessings.”
“When we boil down Christianity, on the whole, there’s far more that we have in common.
We have differences, but what we have in common is huge. And we should also accept that other people have quite different upbringings and we have to allow that that’s also their path. So there’s no judging.”
Much of his day is spent visiting the wards getting to know the patients, with his kete containing the tools of his trade. “A prayer book, address book, holy water, calling cards.”
“I get lots of comments about my kete, especially from Maori patients. They want to look at it and see how it was made and know where I got it from.
“I’ve come to see that, probably, the most important thing in life is relationships, and having healthy relationships with family and friends. In this role we’ve only got, sometimes, about three or four days to form some sort of a relationship. Mostly I am trying to gain some empathy with people, just establishing rapport.
I tell them who I am, what I, maybe, can do for them. Then I’m able then to listen, if they want to talk and, particularly, if they say, ‘sit down’. That’s a big invitation for me to ask a more important question. Generally, after a second or third visit, I will then ask them,
‘Well, how are things going?’
This can lead to maybe, how they are coping with their illness and even raising with them,
‘What do you feel about dying?’ That’s one of the things in our society that we don’t talk about. We talk about being seriously ill, but we don’t actually say the word very often. But, that’s the inevitable thing we have, is taxes and death. Two things that are absolute certainties. But that’s an important question, not to be raised lightly.
All of us have a journey, and we have to navigate that ourselves. And life throws into itself a whole lot of things that we probably, at times, wonder, ‘Why me? Why has this happened?’
“People will often ask us to pray for them and sometimes, when we know that they have a belief in a god, sometimes we will say to them, do you want me to pray for you, but that’s something that is done carefully.
He says he works closely with staff, particularly in the area of palliative care. It is a varied role.
“The cleaners here won’t go into a room until it has been blessed, so we always have someone on call to do that straight away. I see the staff are as important as the patients.
It’s good to have a relationship with them and be available.”
In a lighter side to his week, he can be seen visiting the wards every Monday accompanied by a ukulele group that entertains the patients with songs. On Wednesdays there is a meditation group that uses the chapel for silent meditation.
He is supported in his role by two volunteer chaplains, and is overseen by national organisation Interchurch Council for Hospital Chaplaincy, which has an Eastern Bay support group.
“I’m very supported by the local support group from the churches. In the weekends there’s eight people from the different churches who are willing to do a weekend cover. Some are ministers some are lay people. So I only do weekends every eight weeks or so.”
Peter admits that he has never really retired. I’m 75. We’ll see how that works out. I’m lucky that I’m reasonably healthy.