What’s Interfaith? While the notion of holistic care that supports mind, body, psyche, soul is nothing radically new, it has attained some level of vogue in recent years. But it has not been made clear what exactly institutions mean when they throw the term around, as they are wont to do, however. Seems like it’s the new trendy word that has supplanted the notion of “non-denominational” but is much more arrogant. Non-denominational at least meant that it didn’t cater for any particular denomination (presumably of Christianity but could conceivably be extended to any religion, if understood broadly as a denomination). Interfaith, on the other hand, is much bolder, more arrogant, and flies in the face of any meaninful signification. In fact, interfaith could mean “in between faiths” or “catering for all faiths.” Either the one or the other is wholly illogical, and that’s why both the patient and patient families and the pastoral care provider have to be very cautious when approached by anything “interfaith.”
Even the emblems used by “interfaith” providers appears a bit exaggerated and gives the impression that interfaith can do it all. It can’t.
Here’s an illustration: In many of today’s non-denominational or secular care facilities, whether the secular hospital or nursing care facility, if it has a pastoral care or religious services presence, will usually characterize itself as “interfaith,” and its chaplains as “interfaith chaplains.” Total rubbish. And it’s more self-aggrandizing and misleading than it is comforting to those receiving the “care” from such departments. First of all, it doesn’t take into sufficient consideration the uniqueness of each faith’s tradition and spirituality. Second of all, it presumes that a Buddhist can provide adequate care to a Lutheran, and that’s simply not so. Or a mainstream protestant can provide adequate care to a Buddhist or a Hindu. The Jewish and Moslem traditions have caught on and pretty much take care of their own, preferring a rabbi or an imam. That’s very understandable under the circumstances. But what about those religions that are pretty rare, like Buddhists, or those suffering shortages of clergy like many Christian denominations?
Someone saying, “I’m the chaplain,” can mean many things. Moreover, many of the chaplains most patients and patients’ families see in most institutions are actually interns or so-called residents, trainees. Many of these people have little or no formal training in ministry, pastoral care, spirituality, theology, ethics, much less education and training in comparative religion or religious ethics. I even worked with persons who had never even been to a funeral let alone accompany a family in an end-of-life situation, or counsel a family when making a withdrawal of life support decision! It’s embarrassing!
But it gets worse! In a supervision conference during my own training, one so-called “chaplain intern” was relating an encounter with one of the patients in my care, whom he had seen during the night while acting as on-call “chaplain.” The parents asked about baptism for their dying son, an adult, and my colleague went on about what he explained to them about infant baptism–the patient was 37years old!–and adult baptism.
The intern’s theology was total rubbish and all he proved was that he knew absolutely nothing about the theology of baptism (and he was studying divinity at a leading school). Ultimately–thanks to the intern’s catechesis–the parents opted not to have their son baptized. The man died unbaptized, the parents got an “edu-muck-ation” of sorts, and I had an opportunity to practice extreme humility…and deep prayer! The pitiful part of this is that the so-called supervisor said nothing at all, despite being an ordained RCA minister! At times, on direct inquiry by patient or family, we must respond with pastoral guidance based on life-experience, formation, training, interreligious/interfaith/intertradion respect and appreciation, and much extracurricular study; this was a regrettable example of putting the ignorant in a position of immense gravitas and having him drop the pastoral ball.
Another travesty: In my same group of interns (Albany Medical Center, Summer 2011) there was a Canadian female professor, allegedly teaching “theology” (but her description looks more like an excerpt from a feminazi catalogue). She came from humble and abusive stock, had a number of really shoulda-been-disqualifying psychosocial issues, was totally unprepared for ministry…BUT…was apparently an “Anglican deacon” and soon to be “priested.”
But even as a case-worth-further-study she was turned loose on patients and families. She attended a patient and her family on one of my units during night on-call. When I visited the patient and her family the next day they behaved rather bizarrely. We had a relationship so they soon told me what was bothering them. The parents were reserved in their description of this “Anglican deacon” or “that woman” as they put it; the daughter (the patient was less kind, calling the intern a “hovering freak”). I brought this up to the supervisor who did nothing. On several occasions I found her “ministering” to families of patients on my units in the waiting areas. She even “introduced” me to families to whom I was ministering for days. I regret not being able to reproduce for you the looks the people gave her, and their comments on the Vicar of Dilby that followed. On another occasion, the family of a young African-American patient on one of her units flatly refused to have her in the room; the family insisted that I minister to the dying young man. Staff thanked me for being there instead of the other intern. The unit paged me to attend to the family, who requested me specifically, since it was expected the young man would die within the hour. Out of courtesy I contacted the lead chaplain for the unit, my colleague the “Anglican deacon,” who forbade (which was her prerogative) me to continue ministering to “her patient and family” on her unit; the young man died that same day. In personal supervision I related the case to the supervisor (who was already made aware of the situation), and noted that the incident was tragic but foreseeable. The intern had no clue about the family, their needs, their desires; it was all about property rights. The so-called “supervisor” cast a blind eye to all of this. The outcome was far from “interfaith” and much less pastoral care.
And then there’s the sundry “digruntled” Cathlick. This is apparently a new variety of Catholic who had to announce at every didactic session to each new speaker not that she is just a Catholic but invariably a “disgruntled Catholic,” as if that made her something special in the eyes of those present. She invariably had to distinguish herself from the apparently run-of-the-mill “gruntled Catholic.” She had to identify herself as a species of Catholic or a Cathlick, CINO (Catholic In Name Only). Invariably a middle-aged female, needful, dragging her baggage from bedside to bedside. And because of her needfulness, requires special attention and gets it; while putting everyone else on edge with her neurotic idiosyncrasies. (We had one of these in my group and she was allowed to complete her CPE unit apart from the group, receiving special personal supervision from the so-called supervisor). She could play a part as “interfaith” pastoral care-giver that she could not licitly play in real life, that is, outside of the hospital. A travesty.
But think of it this way: The departments providing the “training” get paid, the institution gets reimbursed by Medicare or Medicaid, the trainees get a unique experience, the department managers and staff get big heads. Everyone wins…well, almost everyone. But it’s really about the reimbursement and the prestige of having a chaplain training program on site–but that’s all that counts, isn’t it? There’s something dishonest, unethical about this. Don’t you think? Therefore…
You must always be skeptical. It’s a shame but it’s true. Things are not always what they seem and it is in your best interest to ask questions and insist on transparency. If someone appears at your or your loved one’s bedside, find out who they are. Ask questions like what is your religion? Where did you study? What do you expect to do for me, my loved one? How do your expect to help us?
I realize it’s difficult to have the presence of mind and the wherewithall to ask such questions in such a stressful situation but why accept an amateur for pastoral or spiritual care when you’d expect a specialist for medical or nursing care. Is you earthly well-being more important than your eternal essence?
Pastoral and spiritual care is one of the most important support services available to patients and families in critical situations. It would be foolish to refuse it or not to make the best of it. You deserve the spiritual and emotional care a good chaplain can provide; so does your loved one. Whether it’s prayer and teaching or simply silent presence; whether it’s performing a complex religious ritual or simply holding hands, it’s good medicine and even science has shown that it works in positive ways. Accept it if offered, but make certain it’s authentic and can provide what you need.
Read about my own interfaith internship experience.