Experiences of a humanist chaplain

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Photo of Lutheran HospitalMy day as a Humanist chaplain typically begins when I walk into a room and announce that I’m a volunteer with the pastoral care team checking on people who ticked the ‘no religion’ box. I usually say to a patient, “So I’ve got nothing to sell”. I then ask, “What are you in for?” Some people I meet are anxious. Some are having existential crises. Some are in pain. Almost all welcome my invitation to connect.

At Caulfield Hospital where I work one day a week, as well as just about every other hospital in Melbourne, the religiously unaffiliated comprise the largest cohort of patients. Almost none will ever be visited by a member of the pastoral care team. This continues to strike me as horribly unfair knowing that spiritual care has been found by the World Health Organisation to promote positive physical and mental health outcomes. It’s also unfair because it’s not just patients who are affected by this work.

A couple of months back, I was visiting a man who told me that he would have died a few days earlier if it wasn’t for a visit from a friend. “She saved my life,” he told me. “They said I would have died if she hadn’t brought me in when she did.” A few moments later, he told me, “But you know; I also saved her once.” The man went on to tell me how a few years earlier he had given his spare room to this same woman who at the time was living on and working the streets. “She asked what she needed to do for me to stay at my place. I told her I didn’t want sex or anything else. I just wanted to help her get off drugs.” With tears in his eyes, he told me how this woman, now married with a four year-old daughter regularly comes by to check in on him.

Being able to tell that story allowed this man to make meaning out of a situation that might otherwise have felt meaningless. It also reminded him that he was capable of loving and being loved deeply; something he might not have been prompted to do without our visit. That’s what spiritual care does. It allows a person to remember that they are first and foremost a human being, rather than just a pathology or procedure.

Another story at the hospital that moved me involved a patient I never met. The story was told to me by a fellow pastoral care volunteer during a debriefing session with a couple other volunteers and the coordinator of our program. The volunteer was telling this story because he was troubled by his encounter with this particular patient, which had just ended.

The volunteer told us that the woman he had been seeing, a fifty-something horse breeder who lived in the country, was brought to the hospital as the result of being contacted by her estranged daughter. Her daughter had been battling drugs and was calling to tell her mother that she was finally clean and sober. She asked if her mother might now allow her back into her life. “I was thrilled to get the call,” the patient told the pastoral carer. “I said I’d be there for her whenever she needed me.” The daughter let her mother know that she was moving out of her apartment the end of the week and could really use some help. A day later the mother arrived in Melbourne.

This woman told the pastoral care volunteer that she had never seen a place as filthy as her daughter’s but she didn’t say a word – only cleaned. After falling ill the following day, the woman was admitted to the hospital. Her condition deteriorated to where she learned that she had permanently lost the use of her legs and would forever be incontinent because of a disease she contracted through a cut on her finger while cleaning her daughter’s apartment.

According to the volunteer, this patient never wanted to talk about anything ‘spiritual’ during the weekly visits that took place over ten months. The only thing she felt like talking to him about was Labor politics of the 1970s. But the pastoral carer had been told by the patient’s sister that the woman looked forward to the visits, so much so in fact, that she used to make notes about what topics to bring up.

At our debriefing session, this volunteer acknowledged that after this patient was discharged, he began to feel as though he had “blown the opportunity” to do ‘pastoral’ work for her. He also admitted to never quite understanding why this woman never had anything negative to say about her condition or her daughter, who had eventually moved out of Melbourne and now lived at her mother’s farm. When it came time for group comments, I told the volunteer that he seemed to me like the embodiment of spiritual/pastoral care. He allowed this woman to hold hope for and make her out-of-control life feel a little less that way. And I suggested that perhaps this seemingly ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ kind of tragedy had allowed the patient to find solace in connecting it to having her daughter once again healthy and back in her life. The pastoral carer suddenly looked at this experience through a different lens. Because of this opportunity for reflection, he now saw meaning where he had only seen unjust pain.

That particularly story, along with many other encounters at the hospital, have made me come to appreciate the importance of this work. So much so in fact, that I’m trying to figure out how I might go about making it my day job as well as the work of others, like my Catholic and Anglican counterparts have figured out how to do. For that to happen, we need to be able to ensure that non-religious chaplains not only receive some remuneration but also possess the necessary competencies. Equally as important is providing theology-free pastoral carers with the support and supervision needed to be able to take on work that can be as emotionally challenging as it is rewarding.

If we want to show what Humanism looks like, we have to do more than fight against religious overreach. We need to also demonstrate that the ‘unchurched’ are capable as acting as compassionately as people in faith communities.

Joe completed the two-day course run late last year for a group of humanist volunteers.

Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 57, No. 4, May 2018

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Copyright © 2018 Joe Sehee