Checking in with Another Chaplain

by UnitedCoR’s Education Officer and National Coordinator

Last March, UnitedCoR visited the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas, as there are some people in this area who are interested in creating a local CoR. While we were there, we discovered the work of Stephanie Just—a non-theistic hospital chaplain, whom UnitedCoR’s Executive Director wrote about in TheHumanist.Com. Stephanie has just completed a residency year in Clinical Pastoral Education at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, Texas. She’s originally from Atlanta, GA, and is preparing to return there in a couple of weeks to kick off the start of a year-long sabbatical, during which time she plans to work and live simply, to prepare her life for difficult tasks ahead such as PhD work, to travel and reconnect with friends, and to do some writing and reflection on her journey so far. Stephanie took the time to share her experiences with us and to give us some insight into her work of doing good without belief in a god.

Susan M. Corbett: What have been the greatest challenges to your work as a hospital chaplain?

Stephanie Just: I have encountered a number of challenges working as a chaplain over the previous year. Residency hours are long and difficult, and I operated out of a great sleep deficit. Our primary tasks as chaplains involved going forward into conflict and terrifying circumstances from which many people would rather run away. Many times, I awoke to the sound of the pager feeling lonely and terrified about the nature of existence that all life goes on, sometimes in suffering and might end in suffering. I have exposed my empathic nature to a number of gravely difficult scenarios. One in particular comes to mind, that of a mother who lost her daughter to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The horrified wailing of that mother, to which I was subjected for hours that night, stunned me. One of the difficulties involved in being a chaplain is that although I feel with those who are going through such tremendous struggle, I have to deal with my own duality in the experience—I feel with them in the moment, but I can and will walk away—and when I walk away, who will I choose to be? That’s perhaps the most difficult question of my chaplaincy. How do I deal with the fact that it seems at times that all of the happy sunny existence that goes on around us can be undergirded by and founded upon suffering and horror? How can I fully encompass the reality of this suffering and still live with hope? It’s a question to which I keep coming back. In an interview with The Paris Review, Nicholson Baker said, “The question any novel is really trying to answer is, is life worth living?” I believe that is a question we are all trying to answer, especially when faced with suffering, whether we are novelists or not. The truth is faithfulness to reality means that we do not despair from all the suffering because hope is also a part of reality.

SMC: Quite often, we’re told that people who are dealing with end-of-life issues seek meaning through religion. How have your experiences differed when you’ve encountered non-theistic patients?

SJ: Religion seems to help people bypass the great wrestling to which the question whether life is worth living challenges us. When we can write off the tears by saying that Jesus will wipe them away or when we can write off our failure to help someone who is suffering by saying that it’s their karmic consequence, we smooth over and insulate those parts of our hearts that really feel for the suffering of others and for our own suffering. It can hurt to feel what is happening, and we are living organisms. All living organisms avoid suffering; it’s a basic biological response. Religion can often be a way for people not to feel everything that’s happening to them. In that sense, it’s more biologically basic to be religious than it is to face reality without a supernatural cure for suffering. And yet, we often see that a moderate amount of pain can be beneficial, where too much pain has no benefit at all, but can be irreversibly destructive. So for the religious who find hope in religion and are experiencing their lives to the extent they are capable, religion can be beneficial.

Working in the Rio Grande Valley, where Catholicism is Queen, I encountered a lot more patients who were religious than not. There are a few nonreligious patients whose memories remain with me: the young woman who recently died of cancer, who initially would see no chaplain, but gradually returned to her Catholic faith as she neared her death; the aged pediatrician who, upon hearing that I was a chaplain, asked me to sit down and explain the problem of suffering; the elderly retiree who lazily intoned, “I am a Humanist,” as he waved me away. The expectation among patients at the hospital who heard that I was a chaplain was invariably that I was a religious person, a representative of a faith community, when in fact, I was not. I had to learn the valuable lesson that what others think I am does not have to be accurate nor does it change who I actually am. I found it to be much easier to serve theistic patients. Serving non-theistic patients and people for whom faith was only moderately important proved to be more difficult, or meatier, because I could not avoid doing the real work of chaplaincy: forging human relationships in order to become a support to strangers. A chaplain cannot learn to do this serving only the deeply religious. With many Catholics, for instance, it is permissible to say a Hail Mary and move along. Charismatic believers actually seem to think that the most important part of an encounter with a chaplain is a prayer for healing, even if one has spent two hours discussing the patient’s life journey with them. With non-theists, a chaplain has to actually work, to discover the unique human being in the room, to discover what can be done to help. Non-theistic patients, perhaps ironically, are the best teachers for student chaplains, and the lessons we learn from them can be applied to everyone, for everyone we work with is human.

SMC: You have such a diverse chaplain team at your hospital. What skills do you have in your “chaplain’s toolkit” that you use to access this diversity for the benefit of the patients and medical professionals under your watch?

SJ: The chaplaincy education process thrives on diversity. I know that it is a priority for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education to promote diverse learning environments where it is safe to be different. Part of the reason for that is that we live in a world full of diversity, and we must be safe to diverse others. In the hospital, the medical staff and the patients are all unique. In my particular program, I was a feature of diversity among the chaplaincy staff. I am ethnically Jewish and Cherokee; white in a place with a 90% Latino population; female; a political progressive; and a religious none. Operating out of that differentness, I found that my religious background, my involvement in radical movements committed to undoing oppression, and my background in theatre and the arts helped me to access patients and staff of many kinds. I had to learn to moderate my speech and to show different sides of myself to different people so that bridges could be built. I found that it was possible to seem Catholic to one person, Baptist to another, or to show a sincere interest in the religious life of a devotee of Krishna. I saw it as accessing parts of myself that are true, but smaller than the core of me. There is a part of me that can entertain the beliefs of nearly anyone long enough to be a chaplain to them, to be what they need me to be to help them. It’s not about me. It’s not about proving my way of thinking is right. I have gotten used to letting others make their assumptions about me, listening to others tell their stories without needing to tell mine, asking questions, being curious, not preaching, not correcting. I have heard some outlandish things about the end of the world and about how some god is going to heal a child, but it’s not my job to correct. It’s my job to be a soft landing place, a pillow, a witness to suffering, a shoulder to cry on, and mostly importantly a friend.

SMC: What has been the greatest joy you’ve received working in a hospital?

SJ: I love giving gifts to people. I thrive on it. It’s sort of my trademark, and if I didn’t have anyone to give gifts to, I would shrivel up and die. The best is when I begin to know someone well and still love them (because that’s hard to do, to know someone well and still like them), and my gifts start to get creative and referential to the friendship. I have been greatly influenced by the St. Francis prayer: “Let me not seek so much to be loved as to love.” I have also been influenced by The Education of Little Tree, in which the author explains that if the giver of a gift truly means another to have it, it should be given selflessly, without wanting some reward in return. One of my favorite gifts I gave to a patient was a color print of roses. It took less than five minutes to make and cost nothing, but he had told me a dream of roses and I wanted to make that real to him. When he was on his deathbed and I was introduced to his family, so many people said, “You’re the one who gave Daddy the roses!” I was astounded that something so insignificant had such a great an impact on so many people. My greatest joy in being a chaplain has been in that I have so many people in my life that I am allowed to love and nurture as freely and as much as I feel like it. It’s difficult to bring gifts to random strangers unless they are cancer patients and you’re the chaplain on their floor. I have had a lot of people to give gifts to this year. My favorite day, I think, was when I was on call on Valentine’s Day and I covered the entire hospital staff in heart stickers. That was a lot of walking. I give stickers to nearly every child I see in the hospital, too, and the light on their faces gives me a lot of joy. Everyone loves stickers, I don’t know why. Even old curmudgeon doctors look like children if they’re given a sticker.
And then, there has been the joy of real human connection! It has to be well-bounded working in a professional context, but sometimes a connection is made and it’s wonderful, like friendship. Maybe it’s a long philosophical conversation or maybe it’s squeezing the hand of a widow really authentically and naturally. Sometimes, though rarely, people give back. I think of a man who lost his wife one night in the Emergency Room, who said that he didn’t want me to think he was not in pain just because he wasn’t crying, and I quoted Paul Simon to him, “They say losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart.” Somehow, even though he was a child of the sixties, he had never heard this song. I took to heart the idea that beginning to work through grief involves memory making, so I sat with him for some time and asked questions about his life with his partner. At the end of that encounter, he squeezed my shoulder and thanked me for my work. That shoulder squeeze was a joy to receive.

SMC: How have you helped your theistic colleagues grow in their understanding of how to provide authentic pastoral care to their non-theistic patients?

SJ: I have to be honest. It has not been easy working with my fellow chaplaincy residents and the chaplaincy staff at my hospital as a “religious none.” I have encountered resistance, to say the least. I did my residency in a part of the country where there is a lot of rigidity of thought and a whole lot of fear regarding religion. I think that some of my residency peers felt fear and anger toward my chaplaincy, and some of them were not hesitant to let me know it. The legitimacy of my chaplaincy was called into question at every turn and I was much more closely scrutinized than were my peers because of that questioning. It was a difficult year! My efforts, though, did not come without fruit. I saw my peers begin to joyfully relate their interactions with non-Christians. I saw them make philosophical connections – such as one residency peer who made a realization that non-theism might be a “work of God:” something that I wasn’t sure was possible for them to make. When UnitedCoR’s Executive Director of the United Coalition of Reason came to speak with our group (thanks to my involvement with an atheist group in McAllen, as well as some folks up in San Antonio, nearly 4 hours away), my peers were incredibly respectful toward him and learned a lot about serving not just non-theists, but people of many diverse perspectives and sincerely-held beliefs. I feel confident that my contested Humanist presence in the program is going to benefit all of the people my peers will serve in the future. It was not easy getting a bunch of conservative, strict, religious people to see non-theists as being human, but I think we got a lot closer than we could have if I hadn’t been a part of the peer group.

I cannot stress just how crucial non-theistic chaplains will be to the future of chaplaincies. We can no longer expect our patients and their families to be religious or theistic: people are fleeing religion in droves! I expect that within another generation, the number of non-theists may double. If chaplaincies are going to survive the changes in religious perspective among the general population, they must surrender to the changes. Chaplaincy, itself, should expect to have its legitimacy questioned, and it must be prepared to give an answer or die. A chaplain is much more than a person who carries relics and doles out oil and blessings. What chaplains really do is legitimate, necessary, and beneficial, and it has nothing to do with a purely theistic perspective. We make ourselves available to human beings going through immense psychological suffering. We deal most directly with ethical considerations and patient stories and emotional concerns. We free medical staff, as transfixed by the workings of the physical body as they must be, to do their jobs less-encumbered by the desperate emotional needs of their patients, and we also address the medical staff’s stresses and needs as they battle crisis after crisis. The people who clean up all the blood need someone to talk with, too. Hospital work is difficult work, and chaplains are the only people in that setting whose work is solely to address and to comfort those going through psychic difficulty. Chaplaincy must grow, evolve and be re-legitimized through reinvention and redefinition. When a chaplain enters a patient room, that patient ought not expect a cleric or a priest, but simply a chaplain: someone to talk to, someone who will listen, someone who will support. We need Humanist and other non-theist chaplains to be trained and to work, not only to address the needs of a growing non-theist patient population, but also because we are an important source from which the legitimacy of chaplaincy as a profession derives. The secular chaplain has the unique ability to show an increasingly secular world why chaplaincy is important beyond religion and even beyond deities. This is a gift of life to everyone, from the most theistically-religious spiritual care worker to the most atheistic patient, to society, and to the world.
SMC: We thank Stephanie for her time and insight into her work! To learn more about her work, you can follow her blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.