When a nurse saw us the three of us walking down a hospital hall together one day last fall, he thought we were the beginning of a joke. Not a joke out of malice or ignorance, but sheer irony: a Buddhist nun, a Muslim cleric and a tall, lanky Presbyterian candidate for ministry.
“Looking for a bar?’ he said to us with a smile.
Serving as a chaplain resident this year in Portsmouth, Virginia, as part of my Clinical Pastoral Education program has been a transforming process for me. First, as a white male and as a Presbyterian, I’ve had the opportunity to work with clergy and future clergy from various religious traditions and different ethnic backgrounds. From a Buddhist nun with whom I co-taught classes in a psychiatric unit, to a Jewish Rabbi who mentored me in my first few weeks of chaplaincy, to a Pentecostal CPE student from Regent University (a much more conservative seminary in contrast to my progressive leaning alma mater, San Francisco Theological Seminary) that became a friend, I have been blessed to learn, grow and find a divine presence through the diversity just in different chaplains and CPE students in my hospital.
But what has also been a transforming experience for me is serving in a hospital where I am in the minority when it comes to my ethnic background and church affiliation. My hospital, where the majority of our patients are African American and belong to Baptist and Pentecostal faith traditions, has allowed me for the first time experience what its like being in the minority and the unfair privilege I, as a white, straight, protestant male, had (and have) in ministry and in life.
A book that has helped me learn and expand beyond my own culture and ethnicity was one I read in seminary titled, “Injustice and the Care of Souls” by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Karen B. Montagno. This book, which I am also reading in my CPE program, contains essays from noted spiritual leaders, professors and writers from diverse backgrounds and talks about how spiritual leaders can provide spiritual care to all people while honoring and affirming the traditions, cultures, genders, sexualities, able-isms and faith traditions of those they serve.
While I had always been aware of different cultures and sought to learn about cultures and faith traditions different from my own, it was only recently that I began to recognize the extent of the injustices many individuals have endured from those who share my gender, ethnicity, and my religion.
“How can I, as a white male chaplain, be a spiritual presence to those of different cultures and religions, particularly if they have been subjected to injustices by those from my culture and religion?” I asked myself.
However, through my questions, struggles and conversations with others, I found myself being moved by the response from a CPE colleague following a discussion about our reflections after reading the book “Injustice in the Care of Souls.”
“By taking the first step to recognize your privilege and being present in the grief, sorrow and injustices experienced by others is not only a way you can still be a spiritual presence to others, it is also a way you can have others be a spiritual presence in your grief, sorrow and in your injustices.
What I am learning in my residency – that I often have to remind myself – is that even though we may not understand the grief, injustice or pain someone is experiencing, if we are open to feeling their grief, pain and injustice we are able to become a spiritual presence for that person. A presence that says, “I may not understand, I may not relate, but I am going to share this pain with you.”It’s a spiritual presence that doesn’t need to be expressed in words. It simply can be expressed by being present.