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What Can Chaplains Teach about Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy?

  • Wendy Cadge
  • January 30, 2024

In June of 2023, I gathered with some of the authors of The Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement to talk about cross-cultural religious literacy. The Handbook, published in 2022, puts the concepts of religious literacy and covenantal pluralism into dialogue with professionals who may (or may not) be using them and offers a number of case studies and perspectives from practitioners. Colleagues and I affiliated with the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab wrote a chapter about chaplains and spiritual care providers, arguing that at its best chaplaincy embodies all of the attributes of cross-cultural religious literacy (CCRL).

Chaplains, who we define as “clergy or other religious guides or spiritual caregivers who serve people outside of churches or other houses of worship, in settings like hospitals, the military, prisons, or institutions of higher education,” are present in a range of settings across the United States. They are required in the military, federal prisons, and the Veteran’s Administration, and are present in a large number of healthcare organizations including hospices as well as in more unexpected places like social service organizations and sports teams. A survey we conducted with Gallup in March 2022 found that 18% of people in the United States have had contact with a chaplain, the largest number in or through healthcare organizations. Interestingly, there are few patterns by demographics or religious factors in who has contact with a chaplain, suggesting that chaplains actually are serving a broad swath of the American public.

Chaplains are some of the only religious leaders structurally positioned to serve people like and very different from them. While many—probably the majority—of religious leaders work in religious organizations, the majority of chaplains do not. Chaplains work in public, often secular settings engaging with constituents who are not in those settings for any explicitly religious or spiritual purpose. As a large and growing group of people in the United States are not religiously affiliated or regularly involved with religious organizations, chaplains may be some of the only religious leaders with whom they ever come into contact.

I have been interviewing chaplains who work in a wide range of settings for many years. Debra, a middle-aged white chaplain who identifies as Unitarian Universalist, serves people who are unhoused outside of Boston. She spends her time – as we describe in this book – doing “spiritual companioning and accompaniment” while “walking the streets, visiting local homeless shelters and soup kitchens, talking with caretakers, going with people to appointments, offering meditation or Bible study of a spiritual arts program, and otherwise being of support to the unhoused.” Mark, an African-American chaplain, came to chaplaincy while serving in an Episcopal parish. He served as a chaplain in the National Guard and then moved into a supervisory position which included training and supporting chaplains, counseling members of the Guard, and helping to explain the chaplaincy to senior leadership.

Debra and Mark, by design, serve individuals who are similar and different to them around religion and spirituality as well as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other factors. While religious leaders in congregations typically work with people who share their spiritual and religious commitments and are often similar to them in terms of race and class, chaplains often do not. They work—every day—across many axes of difference, ideally embodying the mutual engagement which builds mutual respect, mutual reliance, and resilience that is core to covenantal pluralism.

We heard echoes of this mutuality—especially related to non-judgement—in interviews we conducted with participants in the Gallup survey who had contact with chaplains. Describing a chaplain she met when she enlisted in the military, Amalia commented, “[The chaplain] was an individual that you knew you could talk to, you know you wouldn’t [be] judged by… He was one that was truly an open individual, and nonjudgmental, so he made it easy for me to just know that I could come talk to him… You didn’t feel like you had to hide anything.” Christina, who encountered a chaplain when her father, with whom she did not have a good relationship, was dying similarly reflected, “I had a lot of guilt and stuff that I had to get off in my past. I felt like a horrible, horrible person. I didn’t have the best relationship with my father. So being able to communicate that to somebody was helpful and [the chaplain] wasn’t judgmental at all, just wasn’t.”

Importantly, the experiences care recipients describe with chaplains are not always about explicitly religious or spiritual topics. Nicole was an in-patient for depression when she encountered a chaplain. She worked with a chaplain who led group sessions and classes as well as meeting with care-seekers one-on-one. Given the stigma associated with mental health problems, Nicole particularly valued that the chaplain was nonjudgmental. “It was spiritual in a sense, but it was also the teaching and just the, ‘I’m here for you.’ And he would come talk privately as well, if you wanted. I think he came to, yeah, he did come to my room once, too. And just the warmth, the understanding, comfort, just being there and not being judgmental.”

Listening to chaplains and those with whom they work, reminds us that embodying CCRL begins with and emerges from empathy and human connection. Chaplains often begin with a warm greeting and seek an invitation to engage. They bring a quality of presence, to do what chaplaincy educators describe as “journey with people in crisis,” “bring God into the room,” “hold space and work with uncertainty” and “embody compassion.” While they need basic skills of religious literacy, it is their ability to identify aspects of meaning and culture and translate between sacred and secular languages that enables them to work with very diverse peoples.

Viewed at a distance, chaplains ideally embody many of the core tenets of CCRL and are a key professional group doing this work with diverse others on a daily basis. It begins with empathy and humility and in its ideal supports individuals and institutions in their mission driven work. Few to no others in healthcare, prisons, the military, or higher education have experience to teach others—often by example—about CCRL in the midst of often difficult situations. Closer up, there is additional training chaplains need to fully meet the ideal, some of which is being offered through seminaries and so-called third spaces like the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab and the Faith Matters Network. Finally, as a case study, chaplains remind those invested in CCRL that much of the work is not exclusively about “religion” narrowly defined but related to the broader ways in which people find and create meaning. The same principles apply and as a case the work of chaplains demonstrates the value of enlarging the frame.

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