What do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks?
I haven’t been able to come up with a punchy one-line answer yet—but let me know if you can think of any. This has been my summer so far. In early June, six of us from Jewish and Christian seminaries around New York City embarked on our first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE)—a requirement for most clergy-in-training that involves offering pastoral care to people in need, in a clinical setting. Our hospital ID badges say “Chaplain Intern,” but what it means to be a chaplain—as I have learned over and over again—is ambiguous, and often has more to do with what the person we happen to be serving wants (or needs) us to be, than what we believe we are.
When someone asks us about our faith traditions—even though we are all deeply connected to specific traditions—we are instructed to say something along these lines: I am an interfaith chaplain and I’m here to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of patients in the hospital, no matter what their faith or philosophical tradition may be. Still,patients often project their own faiths onto us—there was the Episcopalian chaplain who has been repeatedly called Rabbi, the Jewish chaplain who was thanked for her work and her inspiring faith in Jesus; I have had multiple patients assume I am Catholic. For the most part, we don’t correct these assumptions, not because we don’t care, but because our job in the hospital is not to share our identities with others, but to listen, to pray, and to walk with those who are suffering. Why should a patient who is just coming out of a four-week coma after a stroke care if I’m an Episcopalian, or even a Christian for that matter? Much more important is that the patient can express her feelings and know that God is with her and is listening to her prayers.
That’s not to say that it has been easy to “set aside” our faith traditions. There are times that I have wanted to talk about Jesus or quote New Testament scripture and have had to hold back. But being able to talk about Jesus isn’t what makes me a Christian. I am a Christian because my beliefs and my relationship to Jesus inform the way I live my life and interact with others. Even if I don’t tell a patient that I am Christian, my Christian beliefs are what “get me in the door,” so to speak. My personal faith is the ground I stand on when I meet with patients. It is what helps me to understand the suffering I witness; it is what allows me to love each patient I encounter, regardless of our differences; it is what challenges me to keep coming back. In that way, I haven’t had to set aside my faith at all.
Throughout our first four weeks, each of us has been challenged to define our own theologies of pastoral care, of suffering, and of grief. Many of us have been with family members at the time of a loved one’s death; we have listened to patients who are experiencing excruciating pain, who have been diagnosed with incurable diseases, who feel hopeless about the possibility of healing—and we have to figure out how we can find the tools within our personal faith traditions to be a presence of God’s love to those we encounter. So, what do you get when you put two Reform Jews, three Episcopalians, and a Presbyterian together in a hospital to minister to the sick and grieving for ten weeks? You probably have to be there for yourself to know for sure—and even then, it’s hard to articulate. But I can say that, in my own experience, not being able to talk directly about my faith has forced me to figure out how to live my faith in a way that speaks louder than words. I can’t say that I always do it well, but I am committed to trying as hard as I can. Perhaps what you get is a group of people who can’t hide behind their intellects and religious platitudes—perhaps you get raw, real religion.