Column: the Others

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There it was: the pointless question on the hospital admission questionnaire, “What religion are you?” It was followed by a sea of Christian denominations, four choices under Jewish, and a unitary category for Islam and three Eastern faiths thrown in. That’s it: no Pagan, no Witchcraft, no “Santeria” or “Lukumi” or “Ifá;” did I mention this was Miami? Summer 2017?  But they included “Jain.” Gotta give ‘em that – I’m impressed.


OK, there is a Jain Center in Miami with about 150 families, so I’m glad they did include it. But no Lukumi, in Miami? Let’s hit that as a Fermi problem: the number of botanicas here, the random number of people you see fully dressed in white on the street as Iyawos (new priests), others with elekes (beads) at the grocery store, then the average number of people at public gatherings of Santeria events, and I’ll take a stab at it as 120,000 adherents with another 150,000 in varying levels of commitment, or about nine percent of the population of Miami-Dade county. Those don’t make the cut for the hospital questionnaire. Jains do, at .00026% of the population.

We’re left with the “other” category, the one that includes practically every reader here.  The correct, if not meaningless, choice which would include Pagans, Heathens, Witches, atheists and about another billion or so people on the planet. All good. That morning in hospital, the intake attendant accepted “other” and the nurse reviewed “other” with me before the anesthesia set in. Both, of course, acknowledging the choice as though there was a certainty about what to do should an “other” religious leader be required. I hope you read the sarcasm there. I doubt — by which I mean I would bet the farm — that their certainty could not have resulted in any functional behavior or solution if I had a problem and actually requested clergy. Who exactly were they going to call? Who is “other” clergy?

Well, to that question, I’ll hazard a guess: there aren’t any, because what that term really means in this setting is, “don’t send in a Christian priest, a rabbi or an imam,” or warn them first so they can offer some generic spiritual advice. The term may mean, “call the spouse.” It could just as easily mean, “send in the clowns.”

It’s a tricky and edgy issue. While “others” might raise confusion about what clergy to contact on behalf of a patient, the term also says that only certain faiths have clear and constant access to offer services in some health-care settings. I get part of the issue here as a numbers problem: most patients in North America (and Europe for that matter) are likely a member of an Abrahamic faith, so it’s convenient to keep those clergy on staff.  Such a response is mediocre at best, and inconsistent with the implied reason for gathering faith information at intake: that if you need clergy of your faith, you can get access as both patient and leader.

Now, I should note that Pagan clergy offering hospital chaplaincy services are out there.  TWH covered the issue of Pagan chaplaincy last year. We even have training programs such as Cherry Hill Seminary. But my point here is slightly different. It about us as the other. In our marginalized state, we see the little deterrents and detours that make leaving the space of Abrahamic faiths consequential; physically, spiritually and financially. In a word: difficult.

I had more important things to focus on that early morning of surgery, but I did take a moment to wonder, “what if I did need someone?”  And more seriously, if I were in a delirious state, one where my clarity was compromised, and asked for a “priest,” my guess is that I would be sent Catholic clergy, and that brought back this one bad memory that remains as notes in my research journal from an old study I participated in.

A few years ago, I was conducting some research on hospital settings that brought me to a local social group that included chaplains, one of whom practiced at a VA hospital. He was interested in my study’s objective and we ended up having quite a few chats over the course of my work. We spoke about my research which, in this case, had nothing to do with chaplaincy or Paganism but about work outcomes in that setting. As he asked questions, he also disclosed more about his work and the types of requests he fulfills for his clients. They ranged from family counseling to the offering of sacraments. He simply assumed that I shared his background as a Roman Catholic and put everything in that context. He described how he referred Jewish patients to rabbis or ministered to them if none was immediately available and a crisis was occurring. He noted the hours could be grueling, there was fastidious documentation, and that he was essentially ”on call” for 24 hours twice a week. He wasn’t alone — there were several full-time chaplains, all of Abrahamic faiths— and they distributed the workload and the off-hours assignments. It’s demanding and rewarding work.

I listened to the nature of his job, and finally asked the break-back question: “What do you do if the patient is Pagan?”

He answered, “What? What does that even mean?”

The angry, insulted tone made it clear that I had just hit the limits of a polite conversation, but I’m not one to care. So, I asked again this time with more context: “Well, what if the patient is a member of the Orisha community or worships Norse deities like Odin?”

The answer was quick and stark: “What? Those people don’t need a chaplain. They’re crazy and  going to hell anyway, where they belong.” The conversation was also over. He walked away, noting I was disgusting.

I hope no member of our community would ever have to deal with any version of that priest, and yet, I’m sure we do more often than we might know. That conversation lead to questions. I was interested in what requirements you need for the job, what training —specifically, clinical competence — and then what job the pays. Here it is: a master’s degree in divinity, religion, pastoral counseling, or theology (note that only one of those might offer a course in the basics of psychotherapy or covers any clinically relevant skills in counseling), at least two years of experience as clergy with some preferred experience in hospital settings, palliative or hospice care, and finally, evidence of ordination. As for pay, full-time VA chaplain jobs in Miami earn about US $96,000 per year; nationwide, it looks like the average is in the upper $70 thousands to lower $80 thousands, not bad. A quick look on the VA and other hospitals’ websites reveals that you really need to be a member of the Abrahamic faiths to qualify for the position, specifically the full-time ones with that salary level.

That “other” selection on that hospital form also says something about how the institution supports who has access to immediate ministry and who commands the salary. That, in and of itself, also says a great deal about how other faiths are perceived by the establishment in health care settings. We’re not on that list, probably because we are not perceived as being capable of taking on serious pastoral roles in critical settings. It implies we are unqualified because our beliefs are too far afield. At best, we will have a significant struggle to demonstrate our competencies at the level these employers demands because the reference will by Abrahamic delivery of pastoral services.

What that “other” is describing is — put simply — not “us,” and at the same time, identifying a space where we have only marginal spiritual rights. The hospital setting is reinforcing our alienation by repeating the social and institutional codes that favor Christianity as the de facto sanctioned religion in our social system, with unapologetic but tolerant quick nods to Judaism and Islam. Even in the qualifications for clergy, the act of formalized ordination — in particular by one of the Abrahamic faiths — endorses the validity and competence of the chaplain that then commands access to hospital settings, privileged communication with patients, interactions with health providers and ultimately, a robust salary. All that collectively speaks loudly to the basic problem faced by the broad brush labels of Paganism or Polytheism in general:  we may be tolerated, but we’re not credible, not when it comes to the most sobering areas of professional settings like health care.

In my day job, I would consider these advocacy challenges. They should make us consider how we represent ourselves to the broader community and respond to stigmatization. It certainly makes me wonder how and whether we experience the same access, privileges and dignity as those members of accepted faiths. I am hopeful we can manage these challenges, but equally skeptical because to many in the broader community, we are viewed through an iron triangle lens of deranged, demonic and degenerate.

I suppose the good news is that we have extensive resources to leverage on responding to social justice issues. Our community has invested tremendously in developing collective skills to address social, sexual, economic, cultural and racial injustice. Some of our larger organizations — particularly those enabling, training and ordaining clergy — as well as secular organizations addressing the free exercise of religion, can become effective allies. They can help us insist that institutions like hospitals treat our community impartially with equal access as patient and clergy, but most certainly not silenced as “others.”

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.