The Chaplain and the Atheists

You might think that one of the best things that can happen as a chaplain is to walk into a room where there is a patient or family members who share your beliefs. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it’s nice, especially during a rough day, to meet an elderly African-American Baptist who wants a prayer to “lift her spirit.” I can do that. It’s reassuring to meet a devout Roman Catholic and say the Lord’s Prayer and perhaps the Hail Mary together. As a chaplain I’m often quite literally the only one of “my kind” (meaning a clergy member or religious person) present in the entire hospital. So it’s a bit of a break sometimes to run into those who speak my language, more or less.

What I’m learning, however, is that these encounters are almost too comfortable for me. They’re not necessarily where I do my best, or at least my most interesting work. It’s almost too easy in these settings to just do what’s expected of the chaplain, and to not push too hard on the difficult questions – where is God in this, are you angry about your cancer, are you afraid of what it will be like when you die, etc. This is something that I really need to work on.

However, I’ve come to love visiting the atheists, the agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious,” and those who were deeply hurt by or felt abandoned by organized religion. My experience has been that a good number of these folks are a little freaked out about having the chaplain in their room, but rarely do they actually kick me out. I stick around if they let me, and I slowly draw out their stories. I start with the easy things, like asking what brought them to the hospital, and see how the conversation goes, working gradually into scarier territory. I have no desire to convert these folks to my way of believing, but instead I really hope to offer them a chance to articulate where they are with their own spiritualities. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work they usually politely thank me for coming by, and I’m on my way. When it does work I get to hear whole life stories, details of the philosophies by which people live their lives, and usually, the tale of where religion went wrong for them. Often there is a young child, or perhaps young adult, inside these patients, still grieving the loss of a faith and a community they thought was everything until they were rejected or had to walk away.

One group of patients I spend a lot of time with is people with AIDS. At first I was stunned by how many people I visit in the hospital that have AIDS. The advent of antiretrovirals in the mid-1990s had, I thought, turned this into a chronic disease, at least here in the US. Yet I constantly see two kinds of patient with AIDS – those with new infections that avoided treatment for various reasons until they were desperately ill, and gay men who have been HIV+ for 18, 19, 20 years and have done really well but are starting to struggle with long term effects of the virus.

These gay men are especially fascinating to talk with. Often they’ve had to think long and hard about their own mortality, and they witnessed a lot of people die at an age when most people plan on just having fun. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack with some of these folks; there’s almost always the story of the kid from the midwest or south who felt victimized by conservative religion, sometimes there’s deep shame, regret, or guilt, and then there’s often the resiliency, the making sense of life moving on, and the reality of actually getting old. In these conversations there’s often this moment, this turning point in the conversation when they figure out that the strange woman in the collar is not particularly surprised or freaked out by anything they have to say.

For various reasons that I have analyzed to death over the course of this CPE unit, I find these conversations to be among the most meaningful and the most rewarding that I have with patients. They’re also some of the most exhausting. When I chart my visits I see some of the details my patients don’t tell me – technical details like viral loads and CD4 counts, past opportunistic infections and how many different antibiotics they’re on to prevent the next infection – and the reality of the details drains my energy.

I’ve put a lot of efforts into understanding my patients’ conditions – I tell my husband I have a horribly depressing google search history. I’m often looking up terms related to cancer or AIDS, learning about another new type of cancer or yet another bacteria that is deadly to people with compromised immune systems. Some people would probably find all this research morbid, but there’s a part of me that needs to understand. I need to understand the details, the medicine, the science. I can’t fix any of it, but somehow being able to read the charts and knowing what people are dealing with makes me feel a little less helpless. And somehow it becomes sort of a way of honoring people’s experiences. The mark of a healthy chaplain? Probably not. But that’s where I am right now.


~ by Sophia on November 1, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Chaplain and the Atheists”

  1. I’m really interested that in the States chaplains are allowed to visit without a specific request from patient or family. Quite different here, and there’s no access to medical details beyond what the patient might share…so when I was doing a chaplaincy stint, I’d only get to see those who spoke the language….Wish there had been more opportunity to step beyond that. You are doing splendid things for God here.

  2. Kathryn,

    The differences in our contexts are very interesting.

    If I only saw patients from my own denomination, I’d have nothing to do all day! Also, in many hospitals, including the one I work in, both patients, families, and staff often forget to call a chaplain or don’t know what chaplains do. We spent a lot of time telling people that we are here for all patients, families, and staff regardless of faith affiliation. As a chaplain I round on the various units and visit all the patients I encounter. If they wish they may kick me out of their rooms. My job is to help people access their own spiritual resources, no matter what those might be. When things go well and staff understand why we’re there, we get treated as part of the medical team. We get called in as emotional and spiritual support for family conferences, we get asked to visit the dying or those who have been hard for the staff to work with, and we generally help everyone take a more holistic view of the patient. As part of the medical staff we both read and write in charts and attend multi-disciplinary rounds. It’s a very interesting experience.

    If I visit a parishioner, on the other hand, my responsibilities are completely different. Also, just like any other visitor I would be prohibited by US law from reading the patient’s chart in that case.

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