Voice of empathy
The journey that took Tabiri Chukunta from a small Nigerian village to his present role as director of community outreach for Saint Peter's Healthcare System has all the makings of a modern Odyssey, and perhaps its key moment was the day he "died."
The journey that took Tabiri Chukunta from a small Nigerian village to his present role as director of community outreach for Saint Peter’s Healthcare System has all the makings of a modern Odyssey, and perhaps its key moment was the day he "died."
As a young soldier in Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s, he received a severe gunshot wound in battle. "The doctors told me I’d died," recalls Chukunta, now 58.
"I can only describe it as a mystical experience," says the East Brunswick resident. "Somehow, I floated out of my body and traveled an incredible distance in the wink of an eye. I saw my life from childhood." It took him years to talk about the experience, which realigned his view of God. "As the son of a minister and a missionary I’d learned faith; that day I experienced the Lord for myself."
Why, he wondered, had he survived when so many comrades had not? "I was still trying to understand such things when I came to the U.S. in 1973," he says. "I knew I was meant to be of service. The question was, how?"
In 1981, his wife, Ukwuoma, was in labor in the Saint Peter’s maternity unit, and Chukunta, pacing the halls nervously, ran into an old friend.
"He was working as a contract security guard, and he told me the hospital needed more people, and that I should apply. I didn’t realize my entire life was about to change."
Over the next 16 years, Chukunta worked his way from parking-lot attendant to security guard to assistant manager of security to director of hospital safety and security. "I fell in love with this place," he says. "The people here are truly compassionate and open to new ideas."
In 2006, his enthusiasm caught the attention of a hiring committee, which felt that his background was the perfect preparation for director of community outreach.
"The first year on the job, most of what I did was talk with people in the community," he recalls. "I knocked on many doors, spoke to civic and religious leaders and attended events at mosques, churches and temples to learn what the various groups were looking for in a hospital."
Since then, "Tab" has become widely known in the neighborhood for an open smile, an easy laugh and a head full of ideas. He has broken new ground, instituting strong cross-cultural and interfaith programs, resulting in the creation of a multifaith prayer room alongside the hospital chapel. And he’s helped medical staff become involved in healthcare events throughout the area. "If the people don’t come to us, we need to go to them," he explains.
Chukunta has brought Imams to the hospital to meet with clinical leaders, which led to the serving of halal food (food permissible by Islamic law) for Muslim patients. He’s arranged workshops to help clinicians understand the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prohibition against blood transfusions. He created a "Unity in Diversity" initiative that led to hospital celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. And he forged a partnership between the hospital and the Chabad House of Rutgers University.
"By understanding different religions and cultures we can provide better care to all people," he says. "I am always learning from our patients-they are great teachers."
He and Ukwuoma, married for 34 years, have five children and two grandchildren. And in 2001 Chukunta began a new kind of service as minister of visitation at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset. In 2007 he became associate minister. He was also on the first team of chaplains to serve the New Brunswick Fire Department. A credentialed disaster response crisis counselor, he recently earned his doctorate in pastoral care and counseling from Drew University Theological School.
"Perhaps I’m realizing now why I am alive today," says Chukunta. "My struggles have helped me to empathize with others, and to be of help to them."