During my JV year, I was blessed to find myself in a community of fellow volunteers who came from a range of spiritual and religious beliefs and practices. Out of a desire to deepen our personal and communal spirituality, we made it a priority to worship in and with a wide range of diverse spiritual traditions. We found ourselves welcomed wholeheartedly into a Zen Buddhist meditation circle, fed with both conversation and delicious home-cooked food at a Sikh gurdwara, unexpectedly celebrated for our service in the midst of a Conservative Jewish bat mitzvah, and welcomed into the home of a Baháʼí leader for conversation and prayer.
As a young adult with a degree in religious studies, I often went into these spaces thinking that I knew what to expect, bombarding my community members with everything I knew about a particular tradition. In reality, each of these visits taught me that my academic knowledge of these traditions, while certainly valuable in some respects, told me very little about embodied experience of community, worship, service, and diversity. Entering these spaces thinking I knew all there was to know made it much more challenging to receive the riches of the traditions they were eager to share with me.
In my current work as a chaplain in two different settings – one a large university hospital, the other a joint assisted living and skilled nursing facility – on a typical day I usually find myself providing spiritual and emotional care to at least one patient and their loved ones at the end of their life and in the immediate aftermath of their death. A usual day also often includes praying with someone before a surgery and sitting with someone as they process a devastating prognosis., Sometimes I am helping the medical team embody sensitive and compassionate presence as they deliver challenging news to a patient’s loved ones, or facilitating a conversation between a patient and their medical team about a patient's end-of-life goals., There are difficult moments like performing a baptism of a dying child at the request of their parents Over the course of the last year, of course, a “typical day” in the hospital has changed enormously, and for me and most chaplains has meant learning how to do all of these things over the phone and through a screen.
During my first summer working as a chaplain intern, I began to notice that I was sometimes unintentionally perpetuating the same kind of attitudes that I exhibited in the early days of JVC. Over and over again, my assumptions about what a patient and/or family might want or need from me were – and continue to be – completely obliterated.
Both my experiences as a JV and my experiences as a chaplain have instilled in me the importance of taking a postcolonial approach to spiritual care, an approach first introduced to me in the early days of my post-residency career. From this perspective, spiritual care is viewed as a mutually liberating and egalitarian practice rather than a hierarchical one. The chaplain and patient participate in the mutual care and liberation of one another as opposed to the chaplain having some sort of special power to "give" something to a passive "recipient" of care.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im articulates this image as "spiritual care as reciprocal self-liberation, whereby both sides are at once recipients and providers of care to each other." This approach incorporates a view of spiritual care as a fundamental human right and need, emphasizes the importance of the de-institutionalized religious practices that emerge from the daily lives of individuals, and emphasizes mutuality. In the words of Cedric C. Johnson, a postcolonial hermeneutics also does the following, "provides soul care practitioners... with a helpful interpretive framework to analyze the traumatic and often debilitating impact of the neoliberal age on countless communities they serve throughout the world."
Again and again, I draw from the value of a postcolonial approach to spiritual care, the seeds of which were first planted in my spirit during my time as a Jesuit Volunteer. Learning how to practice the skills of cultural humility, checking my own assumptions, and becoming more self-aware is foundational for any chaplain and, for me, skills I first began to intentionally develop as a JV.
Rather than seeing ourselves only as people who have something to “give” to others, we must also begin to see that authentic service necessitates genuine human connection – which necessitates seeing ourselves not only as those who have something to give but as those who must make space to receive what is waiting to be given to us.
John Winslow, M.Div grew up on a farm in Washington. He earned a BA in Religious Studies and English Writing from Gonzaga University after which he spent a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Washington, D.C. serving as an Outreach Coordinator with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. John graduated with a Master of Divinity from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in 2019 and currently works as a healthcare chaplain in the Bay Area. John's work as a chaplain, rooted in the Catholic tradition, is guided by the principles of incarnation, sacramentality, and liberation.