My name is Richard, and I’m a hospital chaplain. During the day, I provide spiritual and emotional care to those with cancer. It’s a hard and fulfilling job that has been personally transformative.
Key values in chaplaincy are self-reflection and self-awareness. These values are emphasized in chaplaincy training through intentional practices that cultivate deeper emotional awareness. Through this training, these values become skills that are practiced and developed.
At a personal level, both have been necessary for me to be an empathetic listener and to bear wear witness to intense grief and suffering without drawing focus from the person(s) in need.
It is also these skills that enabled me to listen to the heart-breaking stories of Black colleagues, and their experience of racism throughout their lives. Their painful experiences were not far off in the distant past, acts of racism occurred almost daily and in the very hospital where we carried out our shared sacred work.
During these discussions, to really hear my colleagues about whom I deeply cared, I had to hold within myself an array of different emotions, including defensiveness. Naturally, I wanted to make it clear that I was not one of “those racists.” Yet, as we worked together longer and spent more time together, I realized that I held (and still hold) many of the hurtful prejudices and stereotypes that caused my friends so much pain. Throughout our conversations I felt guilt, anger, sadness, and overwhelmed among other emotions. I also noticed a consistent theme: race was an ever-present reality for my Black colleagues. It was regularly mentioned and discussed by others in their presence, slurs and belittling comments were used when others thought they were out of ear-shot (and occasionally directly to their face), their authority and expertise were questioned and scrutinized. These challenges were (and remain) a regular part of their lives, and I was oblivious. As I reflected on my life, I realized that as a white male, race meant very little to me unless I wanted it to. I could switch in and out of racial awareness as I saw fit. This made me curious; I wanted to know why that was and how it came to be.
As I dug into race in American history, I realized how much I didn’t know. This despite being a history major in my undergraduate studies and focusing particularly on American military history. I took two classes on the Civil War, and the centrality of slavery, and the racist foundations of it, were never discussed. How could this be when the historical record is clear? When the Confederacy was so clear about their beliefs and intentions? And it wasn’t just the Civil War, I saw time and time again, throughout our history, that race and racist ideas played a central role, yet their role and impact are downplayed, denied, or ignored all together. Our society has been shaped, and continues to be shaped, by these ideas; a reality I’m only beginning to understand.
This is changing. There are amazing scholars writing accessible and well researched books about this subject. Authors like Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to name a few. Meanwhile writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Harriet Washington are using their platforms to bring awareness to the issues of race in America. Reading the works by these authors, has been challenging, painful, and illuminating. I recommend reading anything and everything from these writers, even if you don’t think you’ll agree, even if you’ve heard others speak negatively about them; check them out and decide for yourself.
With so many voices, better positioned and better trained than me, why am I writing? In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking” I’m not writing poetry, but I am using writing as a way to clarify my own thinking. I’ve come to realize that much of what I’ve learned is one side of a much larger, complicated story. And so my writing is an attempt to reflect upon, process, and confront what I’ve learned and what I’m learning. I don’t think I’m bringing anything new or unique to the table; rather, I write to clarify what I’ve been reading and the common themes I’m seeing. I post these writings in the hopes that they might cause others to further reflect upon those ideas and themes. I believe it is a messy yet necessary journey, to better understand our current struggles and to fully embrace the vision cast by the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a powerful vision, cast by a slave-owner at a time when slavery was wide-spread in the colonies that would soon become the United States of America. Since that time there have been those who fought to make that vision a reality. That group has grown and significant progress has been made towards seeing this vision realized. That gives me hope. Hope that, despite the challenges we still face, we can acknowledge the complicated history of our nation, recognize the impact of of this history, and make changes that align us more fully with liberty, equality, and justice.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope that you will continue to do so as I wrestle with new and challenging ideas and information. Also, I would love to hear about your journey. Feel free to visit the Contact page to drop me a line and share your own experiences, ideas, and challenges. I look forward to hearing from you!
Thanks and take care,