Five Non-Magic Words: “How Can I Help You?” Advancing the Humanist Chaplaincy

Chaplaincy is a very personal “calling” for me that began in the early 1980s, rooted in an ethical stance of compassion, love, respect, and justice.

I was living in Boston at the time and was coming to terms with my own sexuality as a gay woman. The support derived from my gay male friends was critical to how I viewed myself in relation to a world that really did not embrace the idea of same-sex anything.

During this time of rainbows, pride, and disco-dancing queens something else was beginning to simmer under the surface of our community and would boil over into the pandemic of AIDS. Many of my gay male friends became sick, diagnosed as HIV-positive or with full-blown AIDS. As they became mere shadows of themselves, many were shunned from family and estranged from friends as well as their churches.

While a country was bearing witness to the pandemic, it was also bearing witness to hatred towards HIV-positive people from the Christian right. The venomous rhetoric created and fueled from the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons of the day further alienated HIV-positive people who were becoming more and more isolated and dying alone. That was the time I felt “called” by my community to become a chaplain.

All of us who were involved with the mental and physical care of the HIV community moved like pioneers in the field of death and dying and experienced the advent of hospice care. We did not have to be ordained. We did not have to pledge allegiance to a doctrine of faith; we simply moved forward and provided the assistance that dying and grieving requires in a respectful, ethical, and non-judgmental manner.

I remained working in the HIV community until 2001. Leading up to that year, I had attended and graduated from Harvard Divinity School, joined the Unitarian Universalist movement and continued to do whatever was needed to help relieve the suffering of HIV-positive people.

When I stepped away from the HIV community, I began to notice that many people from all walks of life felt estranged from their religious communities. According to a 2012 Pew Research study on the U.S. religious landscape, over the last five years alone, “the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just fewer than 20 percent of all U.S. adults.” The study breaks down to include 13 million self-described agnostics and atheists and approximately 33 million who say they have no particular affiliation.

During my volunteer work in hospitals from Maine to Florida, I’ve seen these same numbers in play as I make it a point to visit patients who are self-identified agnostics, atheists, and people who have no particular religious affiliation. Many times I’ve walked into a room and identified myself as a volunteer from the hospital chaplain’s office, adding, “I am not here to proselytize a particular faith tradition—I am here for you. How I can help?”

The responses have ranged from sighing in relief to an elderly lady asking me to recite the Lord’s Prayer with her while waiting for a priest to come and perform her last rites. Some patients talk about dying but most patients talk about the lives they have led and their realized or unrealized dreams, their art, their love. All of this requires a non-judgmental ear, sometimes a warm touch and—always—a safe space.  That is what a humanist chaplain can provide: a space not clouded by religious doctrine (which always seems available for those who desire it).

I have also heard sad, horrific stories from patients handed Bibles by chaplains and being told that God will answer their prayers. People from faith traditions and atheists alike have been terribly wounded by such actions and declarations, illustrating the antithesis of the role chaplains can and should play in the care of patients—which is the total care of mind, body, and, yes, soul, if appropriate.

Those familiar with the story of the first applicant to become the U.S. Navy’s first humanist chaplain, know that he has constantly asserted the need for focusing on the “holistic well-being of anyone who is need of pastoral care.” He and his supporters stress that the critical role of the humanist chaplain in the military is to create a safe space for soldiers to face their fears of isolation, loneliness, and anxiety. I contend that this ethical stance applies to all people, military and non-military alike, seeking the care of a chaplain.

Many pastoral care departments in the major teaching hospitals are becoming aware of the multiplicity of belief systems within their populations, supported by the statistics previously mentioned, and have so crafted their mission statements and approaches. For example, Johns Hopkins Medical Center informs the public that Johns Hopkins “was raised in the Society of Friends and that the hallmark of Quaker spirituality is the affirmation of individuals ‘Inner Light,’ rather than an emphasis on creeds and religious practice.” The chaplaincy department at Massachusetts General Hospital states that they “support by listening without judging, sharing without preaching.”

One might assume that with the changing role of chaplains, the door for those of us endorsed as humanist chaplains would swing wide open and that we would be welcomed into the discussion of holistic care for those we serve.  Unfortunately, that is not yet the case.

One issue that is germane to this discussion is the fact that to be a chaplain in many hospital settings, one must have advanced certification in clinical pastoral education, which often requires ecclesiastical endorsement and/or ordination to even attain the advanced training. In my personal journey, I have encountered this attitude time and time again: humanists cannot have a place at the table because we simply don’t believe in a god, and if we don’t believe, the reasoning goes, how can we be there for anyone who does?

My responses have ranged from, “humanists actually are great believers—in science, medicine, ethics, and personal choice,” to turning the question and asking, “How can you not have a humanist chaplain for people who identify as atheists or agnostics, or who don’t feel compelled by any one faith tradition?” That is usually when the discussion ends.

Helping to advance humanist chaplaincy requires us to continually question authority in our medical institutions, in our prison system, and in our military on behalf of everyone, especially those of us who are unfairly thought of as people who don’t believe in anything.

Like I said at the beginning of my story, chaplaincy is a very personal calling that should be rooted in an ethical stance of compassion, love, respect, and justice. But chaplaincy is so much more. It is a promise to ourselves, to our community, and to those we serve to listen without judging, to share without preaching, and to create that safe space where deep compassion meets the extended hand of caring. It is such a fragile place to meet people who need us, and it is our responsibility as chaplains to suspend our personal beliefs long enough to best meet the needs of the patient, soldier, friend, or loved one who seeks our care. Who’s better suited to do this than a humanist chaplain, guided by reason and ethics and the sole desire to help relieve suffering?

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