As I have read and pondered the question on class and faith (see yesterday’s post for links), I have also thought about my own background and how it might influence my perspective. I don’t know how to answer more than a couple of questions in the various questionnaires that try to place a person in terms of privilege, so here’s the quick background on my “class” in bio form.
My father is South African, my mother Norwegian. I grew up in Botswana with two Batswana foster siblings, one of whom died of “witch craft” as a teenager. I spent 10 years in Botswana, then 16 years in Norway, and have been here in the USA now for more than a decade. My life has been lived being tugged between opposites. Who knows what my culture or class was or is? Not Norwegian, not South African, not Tswana, not American. I belonged to the rich elite by Botswana standards, but was poor by Norwegian standards. Here in the USA I’m a “legal resident alien” with few legal rights, but I’m privileged by virtue of education. My profession gives me status, but let me advise you not to go into chaplaincy or spiritual direction if you want to earn enough to pay your bills.
I spent decades in painful identity struggles, feeling like an outsider no matter what setting I was in. In 1996, I became a hospital chaplain, and here’s what happened:
One of the reasons I think I do well as a chaplain and spiritual director with the mentally ill is that their pain is real to me, even when the cause for their pain may be a delusion. When a woman believes that the man she loves is trying to kill her, she is in agony, and it makes no difference to her whether it is factually true or not. She is in agony one way or the other. My spiritual responses to that woman are quite similar, whether the man is trying to kill her or not: I address the sense of betrayal, the fear, and the heartbreak in similar ways. The difference in my response would lie in whether or not I call the police and other support services, and how much I would involve her reasoning capacities in my support of her (hardly at all if her fear stems from mental illness).
Another gift of chaplaincy is that I have learnt what is important in life and what is not. Whether I listen when someone looks back on their life as they approach death, or I listen to a grieving family talk about what made their loved one important, what I have noticed over the years is that they rarely talk about work, success/failure, or income levels. Unless, of course, those things caused conflict or estrangement between family members. Because relationships with loved ones seems to be the most important thing to everyone, and the extent to which they lived honorably and/or lived in accordance with their faith can also be important.
Suffering comes in many shapes and forms, and what I have learned is not to judge whether or not it has merit, but to accept each form of it as real, to respond with love and compassion, and to offer hope that the suffering will end one day. The hope I offer is something like this: there is no life without death, no love without loss. I borrow from Ecclesiastes with an added emphasis of my own: there is a time to mourn, which WILL be followed by a time to dance, there is a time to weep and it WILL be followed by a time to laugh. And God promises over and over again that no matter where we are in this life, God will be with us in it. When we mourn, God mourns with us. When we laugh, God laughs with us.
“I thought this was supposed to be a post on class and faith?!”, you may be wondering. Bear with me a little longer, dear reader.
I said that it was a privilege to be a hospital chaplain because I have learned what is important and what is not. I need to add that that privilege came at a high price. The price I have paid is that I have been with parents holding their dead newborns in their arms. Sometimes it is a wealthy family, sometimes it is a poor family. The agony is no less real either way. It takes me weeks to recover each time I am present in a situation like that. Each visit I make to the hospital is a reminder of just how fragile my happiness is, because I know how easily I could lose everything I love in life. In the midst of privilege, I hurt.
Although I have lost my innocence, I feel I have ultimately gained far more than I have lost. What I see is that the basic human drama is the same, no matter what our class, culture, ethnicity, nationality, faith, or other background. This doesn’t mean culture, faith, etc are unimportant. There was a time in my life when a friendly question of “Where are you from?” was enough to make me burst into tears. So I’m not trying to say that class doesn’t matter. Class matters, as do other identifiers, because they are part of who we are and how we understand our world and how we understand God. And God uses the particulars of our language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and faith to speak to us. And identifiers like class can be used to include or exclude, they can be used to give or withhold privilege. When that happens it is wrong. And I think my denomination and others ARE guilty in this regard.
Even more importantly, it REALLY matters if someone is starving or suffering any other kind of physical deprivation.
My musings today are about the solution, and to me the solution to the problem of exclusion and privilege lies in going together to a deeper, more fundamental level, the level at which all human beings are united.
What we all share is this, as I see it: When we mourn, we need God’s words of comfort and promise of hope. When we rejoice, we need to be reminded of those who suffer. When we are close to giving up, we need to be reminded to persevere. When we are feeling hopeless, we need to hear words of encouragement. When we are wealthy, we need to be reminded to share. When we are poor, we need to know we will be cared for. When we are hungry, we need food. When we are afraid, we need to be made safe. When we feel we are boxed in, we need to hear of God’s freedom. When we stand before a daunting task, we need be reminded to tap into God’s strength so we can survive. We need to be loved and respected.
I refuse to accept the idea that one denomination speaks to the faith condition of one class more accurately than another class, one nationality better than another, one culture better than another, one income bracket better than another. If a denomination addresses one group more than another, I think it has failed.
Faith, for me, is ultimately about God’s love for every single human being in his or her particularity. Our calling is to be a conduit for God’s love into every person’s life, whatever their condition may be.
Query for prayerful consideration:
What is God stirring up in me with regard to these issues?