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The Perils of a Pagan Hospital Chaplain in a Christian World

Updated: Jan 25

"Tell me, Wes, do you know the Lord?" That's the question I got after having an otherwise lovely conversation with a conservative Christian couple in the hospital. My theology or beliefs didn't even come up. Does this guy just ask everyone that, even if they're a hospital chaplain? Probably so, because he's a dick. Anyway, he continued: "Or are you a pantheist or something like that?" Wow, he certainly had my number! I'll give him credit for knowing different kinds of theology, but I wonder what gave it away? Well, when asked a question like that, it's important to me to respond honestly. I told him, yes, I am a pantheist and that I follow a Pagan spiritual path. I went on to explain our interfaith approach as hospital chaplains, but I could tell he wasn't impressed and had no interest in continuing our conversation. I mean--ugh--have a Pagan pray for his sick wife--oh, the insult, the horror!

Naturally, I ended the visit with grace and kindness despite the derision directed at me. But such are the perils of being a Pagan chaplain in the middle of conservative Christian country. Most patient and families have no idea that I'm Pagan, and that's the way it should be because the visit is about them, not me. When folks have found out that I'm Pagan, I've had both negative and positive reactions. I never really know how it's going to turn out, but I try to weigh the consequences of self-disclosure. While I recognize that this dilemma comes with the territory, sometimes it's just exhausting to swim among all the Christian privilege and monotheistic assumptions. It's thick, lemme tell ya. I thought I'd share a little of what I've experienced and how I've handled it.

A lot of what I experience from family, patient or staff comes from a simple lack of understanding about what a modern chaplain does. Some folks go by the old model of chaplaincy in which I represent a particular church with a goal of saving souls for Jesus. I once had a nurse ask several questions about what it takes to be a chaplain. She was sincere, and Paganism didn't come up. We talked about educational requirements, and the funny part is that when I told her a masters degree was required to be a chaplain, she exclaimed, "A master degree just to tell people about the Lord?!" Yes, sweetie, because that's what I'm all about.

Many folks want to know what church I attend, or they assume I'm a pastor. I think most of this is honest curiosity, but sometimes it's also because they're afraid I'm going to try and sway them to a different strain of Christianity. Honey, that is the last thing on my mind. When I get the question, I emphasize that I don't represent any church but rather hospital chaplains offer spiritual care to everyone no matter their religion, and we even care for people who don't follow any religion. Some folks are ok with this, but others ask, "But what church do you attend?" Again with the assumptions. This is where it gets tricky. Do I tell them I'm Pagan, and if so, how will that affect the encounter? A lot of times I just tell them something so we can move on. I'll often answer "I'm Methodist" because locally Methodists are pretty safe, plus I know a local Methodist minister and several people at her church, so that makes it easy to keep up the ruse. I do feel somewhat disingenuous, but if my overall goal is to provide spiritual care, I feel it's ok if it helps preserve the relationship I'm creating. But lately I've started saying I'm Moravian. I feel it's safer because my mother's Moravian roots go way back, and a second cousin started a local Moravian church. Most Christians have never heard of Moravians, so it gives their brains something to chew on.

When I have revealed my Paganism, there have been some positive receptions. One patient told me that his daughter and son-in-law are Pagan, and we had a nice conversation about that. There was another patient who I thought might actually be Pagan, but I wasn't sure. I didn't say anything until my 3rd visit with him because he was very much a spiritual seeker, and I didn't want anything I said to sway him. But when he started talking about the Goddess and his connection to the Earth, I told him. He cried a little, happy to find a kindred spirit who shared his experiences and beliefs.

But I've had many wonderful encounters where I and a patient or family member shared a special spiritual connection in which my Paganism didn't even come up. Like the Christian woman with COVID who said she felt God's presence after I played her favorite song on my cell phone, or the patient who I baptized at his bedside, or the Catholic who cried while receiving communion from me. And I've been with many Christians who have grieved their loved ones death in the Emergency Department, some while speaking in tongues, and they've thanked me, saying, "God bless you." And those encounters are why I do this.

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