Chaplain Opens His Heart to Grief
While growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, Victor Perez-Ballesteros was often left home to care for his younger siblings when his parents had to go to work.
On those occasions, he said, he sometimes put on a robe as a priestly vestment and celebrated the Roman Catholic Mass from memory. He even preached a little sermon to his siblings.
“I loved doing that. Wanting to be a pastor goes all the way back to my childhood,” said Perez-Ballesteros, who grew up Roman Catholic and is today a Christian Reformed hospital chaplain at the Denver (Colo.) Children’s Hospital and Denver Health Medical Center. Recently he was nominated for a compassion award for his care of a family grieving the loss of their child at the Denver Health Medical Center.
Though he was aware in his youth that he wanted to serve in ministry, Perez-Ballesteros said he drifted away from having a life of faith when he left Mexico at the age of 18.
“I stopped going to church until I met my wife, and we started going to Third CRC in Denver,” he said. “It was there that the Holy Spirit moved my heart in a way that I understood God’s grace in a different way. I realized God’s care for me, and that’s when I was born again.”
It was also at Third CRC that the desire to be a pastor, which he had been struggling with for a long time, came in clear focus one day while he was in the church cleaning. He and his wife, Sharon, were custodians there at the time.
“I had been losing sleep and wondering if God was calling me to serve him. No one knew about my desire to be a pastor. It seemed like an impossible dream,” said Perez-Ballesteros.
Then, when he stepped into the office of Tom Draayer, the pastor of Third CRC, that day to pick up the wastebasket, Draayer, who was at his desk, looked at him with an expression that Perez-Ballesteros described as “in a special way going right to your soul.”
Draayer said softly and simply, “Victor, have you ever thought about being a pastor?”
“I told him how I hadn’t been able to sleep because that question was on my mind,” said Perez-Ballesteros. “Right then, I felt God calling me.”
It was a moment of a crucial turnaround for him, he said. And he decided to go to seminary. Having earned a degree in electronics, Perez-Ballesteros had to take some courses at a community college before applying to and being accepted at Calvin Theological Seminary.
He began working toward a master of divinity degree in 2011. And at the seminary he got his first taste of chaplaincy work. As a part of his study program, he had to volunteer 100 hours at a nonprofit health clinic.
“I began serving there as an interpreter. I would go in and talk, listen to, and pray with people. The work really filled my heart,” he said.
Not long after earning his M.Div. and returning to Denver, Perez-Ballesteros and Sharon decided to plant a church called Cascade of Hope in order to work with Spanish-speaking people in the inner city.
“When we came back to Colorado, we asked God to guide us and point us to what to do,” he said. “We wanted to help the community. We didn’t see anything for Spanish-speaking people in the area, so we decided to start a church.”
The members of Cascade of Hope were 80 percent Spanish-speaking, and Victor and Sharon provided English as a Second Language classes, citizenship classes, computer literacy, and programs for young people.
During this time, he worked as a bivocational pastor; he had a job in electronics while also serving the church. At one point, however, he recalled working in the health-care clinic in Grand Rapids and how meaningful that work was to him. After talking to some people, he decided he wanted to work full-time in ministry and began training as a chaplain.
He planned to split his time between the chaplaincy and the church plant. But they ran into some roadblocks at the church. Things didn’t go as well as they hoped. It was hard, for example, to put together a praise band, and eventually they had to close the church.
“It was very, very hard to go that route, but it is amazing how God works,” said Perez-Ballesteros, adding that the path into the chaplaincy was smoother than he thought it might be.
After looking into and learning more about CRC chaplaincy, Perez-Ballesteros did a year of Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Anthony North Health Campus in Westminster, Colo.
That opened a door for him to work in a PRN (pro re nata, “as needed”) chaplain position at Denver Health Medical Center and as a full-time chaplain for the Children’s Hospital in Denver. “I really regret that I didn’t do this sooner. It is such fulfilling work,” said Perez-Ballesteros.
Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, he is drawn to working with people who are going through hard times. To practice safe distancing, he has mostly connected with people by talking with them over the phone, but he can stand outside their rooms and let them know he is there as they talk.
Perez-Ballesteros has served in many other situations as well.
“You might ask how I can like being with someone whose liver is being destroyed by cancer, or with a child struggling with a serious illness. But it is an honor that families allow me into their lives to share their pain. It is very intimate and private.”
Not long ago, he said, he was working at Denver Health Hospital when the chaplain on duty was ending her shift and she asked if he could help with a family whose baby had just died. The family was grouped by the baby’s room at the end of the hall.
“I walked over there to be with them. They were feeling a lot of grieving and pain,” he said. “I stayed with them for maybe three hours and helped to carry them through it. It was hard but very moving to be with them. They were so loving to each other.”
That was the circumstance for which Victor was singled out and nominated for the compassionate care award. In nominating him, a document describing the incident says: “Chaplain Victor never hesitates to provide spiritual care to Spanish-speaking patients, and was especially helpful to a family who recently experienced the unimaginable loss of a newborn. Victor was recognized by his colleagues for the respectful and comforting spiritual care to this family.”
As he thinks of the event, Perez-Ballesteros says, “I didn’t go the extra mile. The one who gets the praise is Jesus Christ. In this position, even though I work with people of different faiths or no faith, I am always pointing people to God.”