Pagans engage in community service through the Red Cross

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TWH –The call came in at 3:30 on the morning of Feb. 4. A southbound Amtrak train had collided head-on with an unmanned CSX train. A conductor and engineer had been killed, more than 100 passengers were injured, and everyone on the train had been through a traumatic experience.

Over the next day, Holli Emore was among Red Cross workers from the South Carolina chapter providing comfort to the passengers, bringing in food, safeguarding privacy while local leaders express sympathy and support, and ensuring that even unspoken needs were met. Emore’s particular role is of chaplain, and that entails supporting spiritual needs from all traditions, and none.

At one point a traditional Southern breakfast was brought in, and Emore found herself wondering if the turban-wearing man whose beard was tucked into his shirt would be able to eat; many Sikhs follow a meat-free diet. “Not every Red Cross volunteer would know” to ask that question, she said, but “chaplains have some training.”

Organizations as large as the Red Cross are always in need of volunteers, whether it be at the front lines of disaster relief, working with veterans, or simply by donating blood. “If you are a human being, and can pay your rent, you should be giving back to the community,” said Valerie Cole, senior associate for disaster mental health at the American Red Cross.

Emore, who is executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary, first met Cole through that Pagan organization; Cole and her husband recruited Emore into the Red Cross, where she now heads up the spiritual care program in South Carolina. Emore also agrees with Cole’s sentiment of service, and has taken pains to promote volunteerism to Pagans. Given her own track record, it’s unsurprising that the Red Cross is high on Emore’s list of ways to give back. “It’s big, and very corporate at times, but who else is there when nobody else is?”

She added, “This is an organization that’s completely neutral about things which divide people.”

Spiritual care — essential chaplaincy — is an important part of the disaster mental health arm that Cole oversees. It’s also not for everyone. People providing mental health care must be licensed, and there are minimum qualifications for spiritual care as well. Pastoral counseling training is needed, as well as the endorsement from an established religious community.

As with any work as a chaplain, one’s own spiritual identity is subsumed by the need to provide care to anyone who asks for it, regardless of their beliefs. Spiritual and mental health care workers are given Red Cross-specific training to tend to people in crisis, and know when to refer to the other. Even avowed atheists sometimes prefer spiritual support, as “some people have a taboo” around mental health, as Emore explained. “It’s almost like they’re relieved when they realize we’re not trying to proselytize,” she said, which is strictly forbidden.

These are people, Emore said, “who need care going through life’s dramas.”

That can be disappointing to some. “A lot of people want to be the first Pagan chaplain somewhere,” Emore said, “but in reality you will be seen as a chaplain, with a personal faith of Paganism.”

Nevertheless, for Emore the work is informed by her Paganism. She considers Isis and sister Nebt-het to be patrons in this work. As death is often close, Anpu or Anubis is likewise near. She describes the latter as a “helper god,” often depicted as “holding hands with the deceased.” Emore sees Anubis and Nebt-het as “companions in those dark places,” while Isis “helps stitch back together magic to reestablish what can be.” Finally, she calls upon Jehuti “whenever I feel tongue-tied.”

While Emore’s service overseeing spiritual care is clearly connected to her religious identity, she feels that many Pagans could find ways to act on their beliefs by helping others. In the face of climate change, she expects that disaster relief will be needed more and more in the coming years. “Knowing how to respond compassionately, and with some training, is going to become a skill more and more needed,” she said.

As evidence, she pointed to people in Indonesia bracing for a possible tsunami after a 7.0 quake hit Bali Aug. 5.

Science, as well as facts on the ground, have shown Cole that climate change is exerting more and more pressure. “There will be more [natural] disasters, and they will be worse in their severity,” she said. The need for people to help at every level of organizations like the Red Cross is likewise only going to continue rising.

Cole is not convinced that earth-centered Pagans have any advantage in this context. “An affinity to the earth is not necessarily helpful,” she said, adding wryly that “Mother Earth is being quite a bitch these days, and I don’t expect her to be any less so in the coming years.”

Spiritual care gives insight into many of the other volunteer areas in the Red Cross. Families of murder victims might need help working through funeral arrangements. The resident of a burned-down house might not even have the phone numbers of relatives, if the phone was destroyed in the blaze. Victims of all sorts might receive immediate assistance from blankets to cash payments to provide for a short-term hotel room. There are programs supporting veterans in hospitals and soldiers in war, and others to overseeing blood banks and installation of smoke alarms. All of these are performed by volunteers, and given the stressful nature of some of these tasks, there is always room for more to pitch in.

Cole is effusive when she lists the many ways in which Red Cross volunteers make a difference in the lives of others. “We provide shelter and food, emergency supplies, mental health care, spiritual support, support for people with disabilities, and we reunify families,” she said.

“There is a lot of talk about creating things like Pagan food banks, but we can volunteer at the ones that are already there,” Emore opined. She referenced the late Harvey Milk, saying “who said that the best thing to do is just come out. A lot of Pagans are afraid to do that.” To dispel ignorance and increase community support, Emore advocates for Pagans serving in some volunteer capacity while being open about who they are.

“Look around your community, see where there’s a need that fits your skills and your inclination,” she said.

Emore might target Pagans in particular, but Cole, a full-time employee of the Red Cross, is clear that there is no religious test at all. Therefore, she would not even speculate as to how many Pagans might already be volunteering, or even if they bring any particular qualities to the work. “What they bring is enthusiasm,” she said.

A common thread among many religions is a sense of the importance of compassion, and “I don’t always see that among Pagans,” Emore said. “We should be engaged in our communities.”

Those interested in finding ways to volunteer locally might try the Volunteer Match site; if Red Cross service in particular is of interest, information can be found here.