By Elaine Chan
Years ago, I visited a white hospital patient who spoke to me about her parish, a church I knew to have a vibrant and active congregation. “Yes,” the patient said, “but it’s been taken over by Haitians now.”
I was unsettled, but I wanted to remain constructive. “Well, congregations change over time,” I said. “Old-timers in your parish, or their children, are moving to other boroughs or even out of state. Having Haitians is a blessing. They’re keeping the parish alive.”
The patient nodded, and we moved on to other subjects. Eventually, she asked me if I had a rice pudding recipe. I told her I didn’t. But her roommate, a West Indian, overheard us and said she had a recipe she could give her.
My patient accepted the offer. I did wonder if the West Indian woman had been offended by the earlier conversation, but I hoped to myself that my patient would remember this generous interaction when she went back to her church.
As a chaplain, I sometimes find myself in awkward situations when patients unknowingly make prejudicial remarks. How is one to respond? Do I say something or not? What is my role? I don’t always know. At times I say a silent prayer and ask the Holy Spirit to help me know what to say. I try not to judge or criticize. I ask questions, rather than make assumptions. “What do you mean?” in a neutral tone is often a good line. Or I make observations, such as the comment about congregations changing. But it’s important to say something. Otherwise my silence may be interpreted as agreement with what is being said. I cannot be a bystander.
Recent events such as the storming of the Capitol and the protests after the death of George Floyd have pushed the issue of racism to the forefront. We are being forced to confront it now, but it remains America’s original sin. People understandably are comfortable with others of their own culture, ethnicity, faith etc. We don’t understand people who speak a different language. We don’t know why they can’t be like us. We ask why they don’t want to be “saved” by accepting Jesus. I sometimes hear anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks, but educating myself about the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well as the Catholic teachings about relating to other faiths has helped me to respond.
As a chaplain I try to educate and model what it means to be a Christian, to love one another and to do unto others what we want for ourselves. In the short time I have with patients in the hospital, I try to plant a seed to encourage them to be more open-minded, get to know the “other” and think about how their words may be received. I need to be prophetic but also diplomatic as I don’t want to lean toward either pole of the political spectrum. I seek to create spaces where individuals can share and seek to be a supportive presence. I also need to self-monitor my own feelings on these issues and practice self-care.
My workplace has held a series of listening sessions on diversity, equity and inclusion in which I participated. Being a woman and an Asian-American, I needed to educate as well as listen, since some don’t feel that Asian-Americans experience racism, even though during the pandemic violence against Asian-Americans has increased.
At my chapel meditation last month in the hospital, I mentioned Black History Month and included a prayer by Thurgood Marshall and the poem that Amanda Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration. Sometimes I mention the Catholic Church’s social teachings in the chapel services and offer prayers for racial equity and social justice. We all have a role to play to combat misunderstanding, prejudice, racism and injustice. I pray for God’s guidance in this and all things.
Elaine Chan, BCC, is a staff chaplain at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.