By Nicholas Perkins
What qualities come to mind when you think about cultural humility? I think about self-awareness, lifelong learning, empathy, compassion, and the willingness to listen and receive feedback.
But I have seen plenty of the opposite behavior: A person calls the coronavirus the “Chinese” virus. Another says, “The shop that I took my car to was an assembly line of Mexicans. I bet there wasn’t a single person that spoke English.” Someone says, “I couldn’t find an Arab cab driver because they were all praying.” A Palestinian man invites a coworker to dinner (Persian Gulf War veteran) and asks, “How many Muslims did you kill with your sophisticated bombs?”
All of those comments depict microaggressions, painful questions, or remarks that involve stereotypes. But how should chaplains respond? After all, the effort to achieve chaplaincy certification should equip us to manage and never tolerate such hurtful comments. Would we use the competency of respect for the boundaries of others? Or the competency that encourages a chaplain to use professional authority appropriately? I ask because I value chaplaincy, and complicity through silence only perpetuates injustice.
When the concept of cultural humility was introduced to the fields of medicine and public health 30 years ago, it catalyzed fascinating and continuing discourse on whether cultural humility is, in fact, more important than working to become competent in other cultures. For me, incorporating cultural humility into spiritual care is just the first step, since I must also integrate it into my life. I must be open-minded enough to learn about another’s culture and to examine my beliefs.
I have traveled to and lived in various countries, and I learned to avoid making assumptions about others and being a know-it-all. I adopted a mindset that I use with patients and families: I respect that you are the expert on your life. I must wonder and remain curious. I do my best to suspend what I think about a person based upon generalizations about their culture. If I intend to incorporate authentic cultural humility into my life and spiritual care, I need to appreciate historical realities and respect the legacies of oppression and violence against certain groups of people.
Earlier, I mentioned a Palestinian man who had invited a Persian Gulf War veteran and colleague to his home for dinner. I was that colleague and am that veteran. I served four years on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy and did two six-month deployments into the Persian Gulf.
On another deployment, we received a distress signal in the South China Sea from a foreign container ship 300 miles away; a man had fallen from a high place aboard it and suffered life-threatening internal injuries. But an aircraft carrier can’t just leave its assigned operational area; that requires authorization from high-ranking officials. We waited and wondered if we’d be granted permission to help an injured stranger.
Six hours later, we changed course and barreled through treacherous seas to save this severely injured man’s life – a Palestinian. I remember the chaplain reading the story of the Good Samaritan as we raced to help him. We didn’t encounter him on the side of the road; we met him on the ocean’s rolling swells and beneath a brilliant moon. We valued his humanity and respected his culture, ethnicity, and religion. Our surgeons performed a life-saving operation, and our chaplains respected his Muslim faith. After he was stable, we flew him to a naval hospital in Japan.
I told that story to my Palestinian dinner host, hoping in vain that it would change his mind. But as a result of my experience on the ship, I discovered that every person has a story which connects to a unique history — and that every human being deserves honor and respect. I emphasize respect and dignity in the prayers that I say for patients of color, since many may have been mistreated by terribly unjust and unfair practices.
Although that dinner party was difficult, it taught me to accept how I can act out of the wounded parts of my life. I learned that everyone has a responsibility to practice cultural humility and tolerance. I have learned to see the beaten and wounded Christ in the eyes of all people and to extend them affirmation and validation.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.