Friday, 19 May 2017

Hello Chaplain! Caring for All in the Multi-Faith Space

Photo: Uniting NSW/ACT Photo: Uniting NSW/ACT

When NSW Police Senior State Chaplain Rev. David Riethmuller walks into a police station, the first thing he hears is “Hello chaplain”.

“The next thing they say to me is - ‘I need to let you know I’m not religious’. I say to them ‘But I reckon you’re spiritual’,” says David, a Uniting Church minister.

By focusing on the spiritual rather than religious, David says he creates a space for people to open up about the things that matter to them.

“As a chaplain I am required to walk next to people on their journey rather than impose my spiritual journey upon them,” he said.

“Their journey may be very different. It may actually be through another faith”

“But as spiritual people we have a lot in common. You listen to people but you make sure you never walk into the place with all the answers.”

As Australia becomes more diverse and less religious, chaplains are adapting the ways they work to provide pastoral care for people of all faiths and those of no faith.

In hospitals chaplains who previously worked in isolation now increasingly operate as a team.

Rev. Judy Knowling, Uniting Church chaplain at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, works in team that includes volunteer pastoral visitors from a range of Christian denominations as well as a Jewish and a Sufi volunteer.

“Our role is to go to everyone on the ward and offer friendship, support, compassion, a listening ear, to hear stories from a non-medical perspective and to alert the Chaplains to any specific requests that are made,” says Judy.

The chaplains’ best efforts to provide a multi-faith model of care took a hit recently when Australian Conservatives Senator Cory Bernardi took to airwaves criticising plans for a new prayer space inside the Royal Adelaide Hospital that would accommodate all faiths, including a space for Muslim visitors to pray.

SA Health Minister Jack Snelling responded saying that the Spritual Care Centre inside the new $2.3 million hospital would be a “chapel”.

While lamenting the uninformed comments that were made in the media, Judy said the chaplaincy team had since taken the opportunity to revisit the design of the sacred space.

“We are planning an inviting space where people can go when they are feeling harangued or harassed or feeling deep grief about what’s happening to them or their loved ones. There will be focus points around the room where people may feel drawn to sit for a while in peace and quiet,” says Judy.

The space is located on the ground level of the hospital and includes chaplaincy offices, which will  make their services more accessible to visitors.

“Our main ministry happens bedside, so this new space will complement that.”

Assembly Disaster Recovery Officer Rev. Dr Stephen Robinson co-ordinates the NSW Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN).

“Right from the very start the DRCN was designed to include all major religious groups in the  community,” says Stephen.  

When an emergency strikes, a team of chaplains is drawn from across different denominations and faiths to provide care to all who are affected.

“We make a point of de-identifying our chaplains. If people normally wear clerical collar or other religious dress, we ask not them not to wear that.”

“We work as a team. The common ground is care of the person. It is part of our code of ethics that we are not allowed to proselytise or try to convert people.”

“If there is a particular faith need we make sure there is someone on that team who can respond in that way.”

In the days that followed the Martin Place Siege, the DRCN provided a visible presence and pastoral support at the site. At the time, they had only one Muslim chaplain.

“A number of key elders within the Muslim community were there at the time wanting to know how to care for people. I spoke to some of those and very shortly after, a number of Muslims completed the training.”

Having a multi-faith chaplaincy team is particularly significant when an incident involves a religious community, says Stephen. “It sends a very powerful message of unity when people are the most susceptible to division.”

Muslim prison chaplain Ahmed Kilani says while he works predominantly with Muslim inmates, he works very closely with Christian and other faith chaplains.

“Ninety per cent of what we say to the inmates are the same things. It is about forgiving yourself, compassion for others, not giving up. My Christian colleagues will sometimes say ‘are you sure you’re not Christian? I say to them, ‘are you sure you’re not Muslim?’”

The chapel spaces inside the prisons are used by all faiths. Muslims attend Friday prayers in the same room as Christians attend services on Sunday.

Significantly, Ahmed provides chaplaincy services to inmates whose crimes have been religiously motivated.

“Our role is to be there and talk to them about some of their ideals and challenge them where necessary,” says Ahmed.

Chaplaincy photo for Assembly web

On the campus of Western Sydney University, Chaplain Christine Gapes is part of a multi-faith chaplaincy where students and staff of all faiths and none can access spiritual support.

“The Uniting Church model of chaplaincy is one of hospitality - and that’s what we use,” says Christine.

“There are some that view the chaplaincy as a siphon for drawing young people from the university to the church. That is a 1950s model. It doesn’t work on a secular multi-faith campus.”

Across Western Sydney University’s seven campuses, the chaplains foster a sense of community by running events and activities, many initiated by the students.

One Muslim student had the idea of a tea club which brought together students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, while a ‘mindfulness morning tea’ has been held across most of the major schools of the university to help staff de-stress.

“You try to come up with things to create a space where people can share their stories. One of the things I’ve realised is that online students might have 100 Facebook friends but so many of them are just isolated and don’t have people to talk to them.”

Geoff Boyce was a chaplain at Flinders University in South Australia for close to two decades. He played an integral role in creating a space for chaplaincy services on his campus where all people were welcomed, whatever faith or no faith.

Geoff says the approach was grounded in the belief that God is the God of all.

“We should not be feeling guilty that we are meant to be there for Christians. You are there for everybody and God is already there anyway.”


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