Walking the Path: My Interfaith Journey

A Pagan seminarian's perspective on faith, theology, and facilitating interfaith dialogue.

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To Be A Pagan Chaplain: Compassion

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

I field many questions about what I do as a chaplain from people who are curious, but who also are under the misconception that as a Pagan I don't actually have a faith tradition (or my faith tradition is not acceptable). A large reason I am pursuing this path is to do the work of representing my faith group at the table with other groups--to do the work of "legitimacy" if you will. We have a long way to go in this battle, as I will demonstrate in the example I will leave here. As I do this work, I am beginning to realize people need to understand why Pagan chaplaincy is necessary. It isn't just the interfaith work, though that is important too. But for every Pagan who is in the hospital and wants a chaplain of their faith to be there with them, for every Pagan in prison, or the military, or in universities, there will need to be someone willing to do the work of fighting this battle of legitimacy.

**Note: For those who are familiar with what verbatims looks like, this format will be familiar. This was an actual encounter with someone I work with, recollected to the best of my ability and presented to my group for processing. This is the reality I live with everyday.** 

Veteran X is a male staff member who presents as having PTSD from his time in the Vietnam conflict. He and I interact regularly through our contact with patients and other staff, and I have provided staff care to him directly recently because of the need to move his ailing mother to a nursing home. 

This interaction occurred directly after one of my patient visits. I had stepped over to the clerk desk to annotate the time and details of my visit, when the staff member engaged me in discussion and challenged me about my faith orientation. I invited him to step off to the side with me to have the conversation in an area with a little more privacy. 

C=Chaplain   S=Staff Member 

 

1.      S: Well hello there chaplain, I didn’t recognize you with your hair up.

2.      C: (smiling) Yes, I do like to mix it up a bit. How are you doing today X? 

3.      S: Well, you know, I’m here. Say, you want to hear a joke? (Proceeds to tell a slightly off kilter political joke, followed by some political banter)

4.      C: (smiles lightly) You are entitled to your feelings X. I try not to engage too heavily on these things here though.

5.      S: You handled that quite well Chaplain, very professional of you.

6.      C: (calmly writing in my notebook) I try.

7.      S: I have a question for you.

8.      C: Yes?

9.      S: What is your religious position?

10.  C: What do you mean exactly?

11.  S: Well, are you Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Jewish…

12.  C: Ah, you want to know my denomination? (staff member nods) Well, if you’d like to have that conversation, perhaps we can move over here away from the desk. (staff member follows me over to the side area, and stands directly to face me)

13.  C: I am Pagan. My faith tradition includes earth centered and nature based spiritualties, as well as Native American traditions.

14.  S: My understanding of that word…Pagan…has a different meaning than what you give.

15.  C: Well, the Meriam Webster Dictionary definition specifically states any spiritual practices predating Christianity. So, that includes Roman, Greek, Druidic, Norse, Shamanic…

16.  S: Witchcraft.

17.  C: Yes, witchcraft as well.

18.  S: Well, how do you pray with the patients. I mean, if someone wants to be saved and accept Jesus into their hearts don’t you think it’s a little false for you to be representing something you don’t believe in to them while they’re sick?

19.  C: I pray in the way the patient needs to pray. I ask them what it is they need, and I use the language they are comfortable with. I am not trying to convert them. I am merely a companion for them in their pain. I listen to their stories. If they need something more specific, like a sacrament, I would refer them to someone from their own tradition to assist them.

20.  S: Isn’t it uncomfortable for you to pray with them when it isn’t something you believe in?

21.  C: Prayer isn’t foreign in my tradition. Asking the divine to intercede on our behalf for healing is something many traditions engage in.

22.  S: Hmm. (is concentrating) See, this is a difficulty for me. Because I understood you to be something different when we first met. And you and I have been talking about my mom, and you’ve been kind to me and I can tell you are a good person because you care about the patients. But I just don’t know about this.

23.  C: What about this is uncomfortable for you? The fact that I am not Christian?

24.  S: Well yeah. I know what the Bible says about witches.

25.  C: I see. And now that you understand that I operate from a different perspective, how has your opinion changed about me?

26.  S: (Is thinking as he speaks) I can see there is something good about you that must transcend all this talk about religion, and the Native Americans are a good people, but they are too simple. Their gods didn’t protect them from getting destroyed, just like the American people are getting destroyed now by ISIS.

27.  C: What do you mean?

28.  S: Islam has no business being here. It is destroying our culture and other cultures all over the world. This is a Christian nation built on Christian values and morals, and we need to protect it at any cost from radical beliefs like that. I believe in God with all my heart and my soul, and when I was in Vietnam I asked Him to give me a purpose for being there. I didn’t feel like He did.  But now that I came out of that and I’ve lived to see what I’ve seen I believe I’ve found my purpose. You know they have said they’ve implanted members of the guard into even some of our government positions? I’m ready, I just wish they would stand up and identify themselves.

29.  C: I don’t know X. I don’t have the answers for any of that. I can appreciate that you love God and I can see the conviction of that in what you say and do. I’d like to think we are on the same page in that respect.

30.  S: Yes but, do you believe in the Christian God?

31.  C: I do. I am a polytheist, so I believe in many Gods.

32.  S: (thinking) I’m going to have to think on this some more. I still respect you, but I just don’t know. I just….I’m disappointed. And I know this next part is going to make me sound like an asshole, but I feel sorry for you. There’s just so much more.

33.  C: Well, my feelings toward you have not changed. The fact that I am here for the patients and to do this work have not changed either.

34.  S: (thinking) Well, you aren’t a Muslim or part of ISIS, so you’re ok in my book.

35.  C: That’s good to know. I do need to go chart these patients, but I will see you later. Take care X.

36. S: Bye Chaplain.

     

      You may ask how my relationship with this person has developed after this encounter. It turns out over time we have grown to respect one another and he has opened up to me more and more as someone he can trust and confide in. The road to compassion is not monopolized by Christians or any other religion, but it does surprise people when non Christians demonstrate one of the most important and foundational precepts of faith: "Treat others the way you wish to be treated"

      In many cases it is fear of the other that separates us from remembering the humanity we share.   

 

 

 

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Denora is currently a full-time wife, mother, and chaplain. As an eight-year veteran of the United States Air Force, her professional career has spanned network administration, performing presidential support requirements and veteran military funeral honors in Arlington National Cemetery, and executive communications support for the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Denora has an undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Central Florida, an MA in International Relations from St. Mary’s University, and a Master of Divinity degree from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD and has spent a year as a chaplain resident with the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Johnson City, TN. She has recently been accepted for a Mental Health Fellowship at the Lexington VA Medical Center in Lexington, KY. She is currently an active member of Circle Sanctuary's Military Ministries team and the Lady Liberty League Military Affairs Task Force. Her future plans include board certification with the Association of Professional Chaplains and working as a staff chaplain within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Comments

  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Friday, 31 March 2017

    Thanks for sharing your experience and insights. Respectfully, I'd like to offer some variations on your replies. FWIW, I've been active in fostering Pagan solidarity and in interfaith efforts for many years, and have facilitated the Wiccan circle at San Quentin State Prison (under the required-by-the-DCOR 'sponsorship' of one of the hired chaplains; first the Jewish chaplain [not a rabbi], then with the Native American chaplain, and currently with the Roman Catholic chaplain). I have almost no hospital experience (only by specific request), but have advised and vetted presentations on Pagan chaplaincy done at hospitals. I mention this stuff by way of establishing my perspective.

    First, it is my understanding that chaplains in secular institutions such as prisons, schools, military, and (most) hospitals need to be proficient enough in the beliefs and practices of other religions to minister to anyone regardless of religion.

    Secondly, Paganism is not one religion; it is a spectrum of religions, so I tend to use the plural, Paganisms. Although I personally am a Witch, in the interfaith world I tend to say I'm Pagan while letting them know that Paganism is very diverse. (Like how similar are the Pope and a snake handler, speaker in tongues in Appalachia? They're both Christian. Not to mention the diversity and complexity of Hinduism.) This may be too much to get into in a more-or-less casual conversation, I guess. Still, I feel it's necessary (for me anyway) to make that distinction.

    Further, although I accept the adjective Wiccan in SQ, I am a WItch and do not use the term Wiccan for myself. However, you have to speak in the language the bureaucracy understands. So I come as a Wiccan and work as a Pagan (broader term).

    On to the interfaith arena -- yes, I do use the word interfaith even though these activities can more accurately be called inter-religious dialogue. I distinguish between the 'revealed' religions (word/rules from on high) and 'experiential' religions like Paganisms. After all, not all Pagans, or even all Witches, believe the same things. Not even in the same coven does everyone believe the same things. But they/we all appreciate and enjoy the shared acts of ritual of whatever focus. We often thrill together when the presence of the divine is palpable. So that's why I think the term inter-religious is more accurate. I will continue to go with interfaith because that's more or less the language of the movement. But when opportunity presents itself, I clarify for the curious.

    No doubt there are plenty of covens, trads, and individuals that do have rules -- the Ordains, for instance, and the Rede -- but it by no means universal. There are even atheo-Pagans.

    You believe in the Christian God; many Pagans do not. Just saying... We are all socialized within the overculture and the overculture is monotheistic (or atheist or just secular). My response to the Yahweh-centrism is here http://besom.blogspot.com/2015/05/interfaith-celebration-of-national-day.html (last section).

    I do find the person you spoke with to lack religious literacy, not that John Q. Hospitalstaffer would necessarily have any interest in it, except for the fact that he engaged with you about your 'other' religion. Neither would Jane Q, Public. Only us geeks care. ;-)

    Several years ago I attended a private invitation-only gathering with the Dalai Lama. It was preceded by several panels and talks. One of the speakers, the former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, at fellow with the weighty title of Right Reverend, said with force that -- and this is an exact quote -- "We Christians need to get over our crippling certainty." [Emphasis added.] He said that after all, their God was a little baby in his mother's arms. It was that term, crippling certainty, that I found so appropriate, not to mention indicating a bit of humility. I have used it ever since when appropriate and have spread it around among my Pagans co-religionists. I would say that your staffer querent is afflicted with this same attitude -- crippling certainty.

    Bottom line for me is whether the prayers, conversations, and rites soothe the pain of those suffering in any situation, hospital or not. Obviously the work you're doing does do that. I applaud you for that.

    I got a bit carried away here, because your post really stimulated me to engage. My intent is not to judge or criticize, but rather to engage with others about these issues. Thanks for the prod!

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