Cindy Melero, an executive assistant at the Healthcare Chaplaincy Network in New York, has spent the last few years helping others become certified chaplains working predominantly in hospitals and hospices. But she has been doling out her own kind of spiritual care for nearly three decades as a devout Christian, reverend, pastor, and most importantly, my mother.
Her “walk with Christ” began when she was a teenager and through its ups and downs has continued throughout her life, permeating everything from her career to her parenting style. Cindy has been beyond blessed to have just one child—me—and yet, because of her outreach and pastoral, she is considered a mother to many who call her Mama Cindy (to my chagrin). Cindy’s acceptance of this extended motherhood was made evident by the amount of times I had to edit her use of the phrase “my children,” when it should really be “my child.” (Unless she was dropping hints about a secret sibling the entire time that I missed.)
I talked to her parenting while preaching and enduring the pandemic as a clergy person; our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Given that this past year a lot of people have been hospitalized or on their death beds, what did spiritual care look like at arguably its most necessary point in years?
Cindy Melero: Spiritual care took a totally different look than usual. Spiritual care really depends on the face-to-face. You know, look at my eyes, let me touch your hand. Because of the pandemic, chaplains were not allowed to do that and we were really lucky that we were even allowed to be in hospitals, never mind by people’s bedsides. That really turned chaplaincy and spiritual care upside its head. We had so many chaplains and pastors and rabbis that had to adapt—really everybody had to adapt to this technology-driven phase of spiritual care. So a lot of it was phones, tablets, anything that we can get to be with the patient as they were facing some of life’s most difficult moments, we just did it.
What kind of clergy person are you outside of your work in the spiritual care field?
I am a licensed minister licensed in the state of New York. I am a reverend and I am an ordained pastor.
Have you ever had to see someone off on their final days?
Yes. And it was pretty interesting because this particular person was dying of ovarian cancer and I went there. It’s hard to visit someone who’s sick and announce that you’re going there and introduce yourself as, hey, I’m here as a pastor or somebody to pray for you. Which is how I said it in this case, I said hey, I’m here to visit and offer prayer and this person said, “Absolutely not.” She says, “You pray on your own. But please don’t pray for me here.” As a pastor and as a member of the clergy, you know, not everyone is up for [meeting me]. Not everyone wants to hear [prayer] because they interpret it as a last rites sort of thing. And really, spiritual care is not just only administering last rites, it’s giving the person that safe space to share what they think because they might not have anyone else.
What’s your go-to speech for a person when you walk into that room and you both know this person is dying?
I’m saying like—with me, if something is going on you’ve always had these prepared speeches and they’re all numbered to address what’s happening. Do you have something like that for the people you meet who are on their way out?
That’s apples and oranges. And I’ll tell you why. I know you, so there’s a level of comfort—like I know how far to push the ball. I know your buzz words. That takes years. But when you’re walking into someone’s home or hospital room, you may have only had a few moments of meet-and-greet, or maybe you haven’t seen that person in a while so it takes on its own life. You don’t go in with a prepared speech.
What you should go in there with is a prepared mindset of listening. Because the person is still sorting out what’s happening to them, and I’ll give you a perfect example. I had a longtime friend that I’ve known since I was 14; she tells me one day that she has lung cancer. And this woman has never smoked a day in her life and yet here she is with this life-threatening disease. And I think the number one question for people in that situation is, “What are your thoughts?” This opens up the whole attitude of I’m mad at God, why is this happening to me, what did I do to deserve this? And you need to allow space for this person to say those things out loud because perhaps they can’t tell their spouse or their kid. You have to just let the person say what’s on their mind and approach them with no judgment at all.
You mentioned earlier that you’re both a licensed reverend and an ordained pastor. Can you explain what that means, for the heathens of Jezebel?
As far as being a pastor, it means I was part of a church and I worked every facet of the church from soup to nuts. I’ve cleaned the bathrooms, I’ve handed out pamphlets, I organize chairs, I’ve taught children. I ushered, which is not my favorite thing to do. I’ve counted money, which is also not my favorite thing to do. I’ve preached, I’ve counseled, I’ve conducted marriages. And so somewhere along that path you have a senior pastor that says, hey I think there’s a calling on your life to be a shepherd and I want to make you a part of that. So there’s a process—it’s like an internship, almost—and then there’s a ceremony and you have to go through the state to get a license and after all that, your church recognizes you as a pastor.
And what about the reverend part? Because that’s a different title.
I mean it is, but in my mind it’s interchangeable. Because I’ll always be a reverend and I’ll always be a pastor; I just might not be actively doing it in a specific church.
I feel like you’re avoiding my question because we had a mini-debate about this earlier. But can you just explain the difference between a reverend and a pastor?
Wow, that’s a good question.
I know. I asked you this two days ago and we started yelling.
I guess I consider “pastor” more of a verb. As a pastor, you’re in charge of a specific church or congregation and you’re active in that role whereas a reverend is more of a title. It’s not necessarily a position. So “pastor” is active and “reverend” is more... it’s kind of like being a doctor. But don’t compare me to a doctor, it’s not what I’m saying.
OK, so you are not a doctor. But why did you become a reverend?
I mean, I wasn’t a 10-year-old kid saying hey, one day I want to go into the clergy, you know. I think it was a very specific time where I was really active in the church and I loved it. I love, love, love, it. I loved serving my community, serving people when they were a little down and out. You get to rejoice with those who rejoice and cry with those who cry. Eventually, because I was so active the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should become a pastor. And without me even saying that thought to anyone, the senior pastor of my church at the time invited me to breakfast and said that he saw this calling on my life and said he would love for me to become the associate pastor of the church. And that felt like a sign for me. So it just took on its own life after that and I love it, I love serving people and you know, sharing God’s greatness.
Yes, speaking of sharing the good news. During the height of your pastorship, there was a period when your one and only child, me, left the church where you were pastoring. What was the response to you as a mother and as a pastor when that happened?
I’ve always viewed myself as a mother first and a pastor second. I’ve been a mother longer than I’ve been a pastor and longer than I’ve been ordained. So that has always been my first calling—my child, my family, my household. And when my child said to me, church sucks, your Jesus sucks—
That is not what I said.
—your Jesus sucks, I’m out of here and I’m letting the door slam me on the ass cause I could care less—
I literally didn’t say any of this!
Well, you said something along those lines. I think the only thing about that situation that was a gut punch for me is that I wasn’t the first person to know. And I had thought that you would be able to put aside the fact that I was a pastor and tell me something like this considering you tell me 80 percent of everything happening in your life. I thought for something so monumental I would be first or second to know instead of fourth or fifth.
You were third.
Okay, third, wow, wow, I was third!? So in a race with three people running, I placed third. That’s really great. Yeah, that’s encouraging.
It’s higher than fourth or fifth.
Well, yeah, but really, that was it. That my daughter opted to leave the church and follow a different path really didn’t shake my world. Because I already knew the seed I had planted and you know the biggest sermon we can give our children is not what we say, it’s how we live. So I knew what I had taught and what I had lived, so the rest didn’t worry me.
And I’m sure people that are going to read this are going to say, oh, my gosh, she’s not a real pastor because she’s just saying whatever. But I really wasn’t worried and I’m still not worried because God finds us all in our own way. So I wasn’t mad or disappointed you chose something different.
Did other people question your parenting skills when they found out?
People are always going to question my parenting skills. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you could be wearing a pair of purple pants and people are going to ask me why I dressed you like that.
Wait, didn’t that actually happen one time?
Yes, we were visiting a church, I think in Brooklyn, and there was a snowstorm out and I figured—you were a kid—so I figured you would play in the snow when we were finished. So you know I dressed you for the weather—sweater, pants, snow boots, whatever. And sure enough after the service, some church ladies came up to me like, wow I can’t believe you let her come to church like that. There was a blizzard outside!
So you know, people will always question parenting decisions regardless of what the child is doing. But I don’t feel the need to respond to anybody because I’m the one walking the walk. So [when you converted], I don’t remember anyone telling me what a horrible parent I was and frankly, I don’t think anyone had the nerve to say it to my face. What they said behind my back? It’s none of my business.
What would you say is harder, parenting or pastoring?
Oh, parenting. Because I can pastor a church today and be gone tomorrow. But I’ll always be a parent.
Who would you say is the best mom in the Bible?
The first one that comes to mind is Hagar. Because even in the midst of controversy and in the midst of some of the worst living conditions, in the midst of heartbreak and strife and abuse, she did everything possible for her son, even when it meant leaving him to die so he didn’t have to continue suffering. She did everything she could until the very last and in the end, God spared her life, spared the child’s life. And you know you could easily say Mary or Eve, but Eve’s kids ended up killing each other, so I have to go with Hagar.
But also if you look at parenting in the Bible all you’re going to find is parents who screwed up one way or another—and that’s where mercy and forgiveness come into play.