During my upcoming CPE Residency – a 9-month hospital chaplaincy – the cross I wear every day around my neck will remain tucked under my shirt, at the urging of my supervisor. "We are here to serve people of all faiths, and it is best that we not wear our religious affiliation on our sleeves," he said.
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I am glad to tuck my cross under my shirt and present myself to hospital patients and staff as a chaplain serving all members of the hospital community, regardless of their faith (or lack of faith). Indeed, overtly religious jewelry or clothing – such as my necklace or a clerical collar – can be a turn-off and impediment for non-Christians or to Christians from other traditions. Thus we chaplains are instructed to dress professionally – a shirt and tie for the men (which pretty much puts the cross under the shirt, anyway) – and let our words and actions, not clothing and symbols, define our role and work with the hospital community.
I see the value in shying away from overt religious symbols in a multi-faith setting, but I wonder if this instruction to shed religious symbols is not based on a well-intentioned but flawed belief that we can somehow be all things to all people. I don’t want to belabor or exaggerate this point, for I believe that in most situations I will be able to provide some level of spiritual or emotional comfort. But the truth is that I cannot serve all the people in my hospital. I cannot be all things to all people. I can be pretty flexible, and I will listen to and console most anyone who is in grief or pain. Yet I come to ministry from a particular perspective – cultural, socio-economic, and of course, religious – and these undeniable factors shade how I carry out the ministry of care and comfort to those who suffer. My patients also have their own experiences and perspectives, shading how they understand suffering, faith, God, life. I can approach each patient intending to provide the spiritual comfort they need, or I can approach each patient with an honesty and humility that recognizes that I may not have what this person needs.
As I said, I don’t want to belabor this point, but whether in rituals (Hebrew prayers or Catholic sacraments) or in theology (does God suffer along side the patient, or is God powerful and in control?) or in many other ways, there will be times when what I bring to the table won’t feed the patient. Nonetheless, I believe that God can work through me – even through my particularity – to bring a modicum of comfort to those who suffer. At least, I pray that this is the case, or its going to be a long 9 months . . .