Spiritual care for secularists

Photo of Joe Sehee

HSV Public Lecture by Joe Sehee at Balwyn Library on 22 November 2018

In the 1970s, John Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine in the USA, advocated that Buddhist-style meditation could enhance well-being and general health. He had studied Buddhism and wanted to borrow the concept, without necessarily promoting religious practice. Mindfulness, as it became known, is now widespread. Joe maintains, similarly, that spiritual care for those facing illness, trauma, transition or loss can be detached from or at least remain neutral with respect to religion. Secular Spiritual Care, the program that Joe is developing, aims to be person-centred and evidenced-based.

During the past thirty years, Joe has himself sought, and received, spiritual care at times of personal crisis. These experiences were life-changing, enabling him to find meaning, purpose and connection. When he was 21, he won a national oratory competition and was awarded a full scholarship to study law. What followed, however, was an existential crisis. He realized that he did not want to study law, and furthermore, did not know what he wanted to do.

He joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and was sent to the University of San Francisco to direct their peace and social justice program. Over the next four years he led peace delegations to war-ravaged Nicaragua and El Salvador, ran a divestment campaign in South Africa and gave support to students on campus. However, after a few more years of social advocacy work, he realized that he was suffering from ‘burnout’ and he went to Los Angeles to become a writer and a comedic performance artist.

As a result of his stage work, he was invited to contribute to a variety of publications. This led, among other experiences, to a meeting with Benoit Mandelbrot, the Polish-born mathematician who coined the term fractal and described the Mandelbrot set. Joe saw in this concept an analogy with disruptive patterns in his own life and in order to explore this more deeply he consulted a psychologist. When he explained his interest in unconditional love, she told him that she did not believe in it. Frustrated, he went back to see his former Jesuit spiritual director from the University of San Francisco. The spiritual care that he received at that time enabled him to review his relationships, and he went on to train as a spiritual director, with the hope of assisting people who were religiously indifferent.

With his Australian wife, Juliette Armstrong, he purchased a property in the Mojave Desert to start a retreat. It was to be a proving ground as all did not go as planned. In this fierce and fragile landscape they learned how intricately life and death are entwined. They started a movement to make end-of-life vigils more meaningful, simple and sustainable. However, directing the Green Burial Council meant working closely with many people who were grieving or dying, and when he realized that he was experiencing ‘compassion fatigue’ Joe sought further professional help for his listlessness and loss of direction. He consulted psychologists and several spiritual advisers. Ultimately, he found a compassionate woman who helped him detach from his pain without denying it and hold on to the hope that this ‘dark night of the soul’ would pass. And it did. Notably, this spiritual counselor never once referred to god or Jesus.

As a result, he realized that he wanted to return to providing spiritual care, and to do so without any religious affiliation. He contacted Geoff Ballard, a semi-retired former Anglican priest, who was working as a Humanist chaplain at Canberra University, and was directed to the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV). Through HSV, he completed a training program facilitated by Spiritual Health Victoria and subsequently found a placement at Caulfield Hospital. It offered the opportunity to provide secular spiritual care to patients who had ticked the ‘no religion’ box when they were admitted. Among them, he met many who had been shamed and traumatized by their contact with religious institutions, for a variety of reasons, including sexual orientation or clerical abuse.

Joe then proposed to HSV that they might develop a program similar to the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network run by Humanists UK. HSV agreed to fund his proposal and the foundations of the Secular Spiritual Care Network were laid – the first program of its kind in Australia to provide emotional-existential support that is person-centred, evidence-based and religiously neutral. Already the program is gaining momentum with the idea of extending care into the community after a patient is discharged. An induction program for new secular spiritual care volunteers at Caulfield Hospital is also planned for February 2019.

However, the scope for secular spiritual care is immense. The need exists in schools and universities, prisons, aged care facilities, the defence forces, emergency services and many other settings. But, at the outset, a conversation which challenges the religious community is needed.

Juliette, who is one of the few school chaplains in Australia who does not have religious affiliation, has been involved in a case at VCAT, brought by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) against ACCESS ministries and the Victorian Department of Education and Training. The case is challenging the policy that allows the agencies that place chaplains in schools to recruit only ‘committed Christians’. After all, the program was designed to foster student well-being on a non-religious basis.

Another discriminatory aspect is the role of the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. Most hospitals in Melbourne currently stipulate that secular spiritual care volunteers must have completed at least one unit of the CPE program, regardless of their previous experience. Each unit of this theologically-informed reflective practice costs about $2,000 and takes several months to complete.

Other areas also need review and challenge. Converge International, a Christian organization that is currently the only company supplying workplace chaplains, recruits only Christians for both private and public institutions. Furthermore, the Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministries, which is funded entirely from the public purse, recruits only church-based volunteers for their work during emergencies.

These are some of the privileges that are not readily recognized as such by religious carers. While they claim that they feel quite competent to look after the ‘unchurched’, many religiously unaffiliated patients would prefer to see someone with a belief system similar to their own. In addition, a two-year study among palliative care patients in the UK suggested that many patients refused spiritual care out of fear of ‘evangelism’.

Finally, it is encouraging to note that Spiritual Health Victoria has invited the Secular Spiritual Care Network to submit a proposal for funding. This organisation already funds faith-based chaplains in healthcare settings and, if successful, it would enable the secular group to be a credible ‘endorsing community’ for the recruitment, training and placement of volunteers.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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