The Kindness of Strangers

The Kindness of Strangers

Illustration Credit: Star Tree by Jennifer Currie

Explore these thoughts on receiving spiritual care from someone of a different faith—and giving it.

We live in a multireligious, multicultural society. This is a treasure, but it often comes with challenges. When hardship and crisis strike we are rightly grateful for the kind souls who rush in to care for us—especially those who offer spiritual and emotional care, such as hospital and hospice chaplains, spiritual counselors, funeral directors, or even the caring person in the checkout line who reaches out when we are in a vulnerable moment. Increasingly in our culture, however, those kind people practice faith traditions that are very different from our own. How can we receive the grace they offer in the spirit that they intend? And when we are the ones helping, how can we be of greatest service to folks whose faith is different from ours?

If you are the one being cared for, it is important to remember that you and your caregiver are both human, and have the same human needs, feelings, aspirations, and struggles. No matter how different your spiritual paths might be, simple kindness and compassion are a universal meeting point.

If your caregiver is a professional, you can trust that he or she has been well prepared for ministry, and is a person of significant spiritual maturity. Most likely, there is nothing you are going through that he or she has not seen before.

Even though the metaphors and stories of religious traditions are very different, the process of spiritual growth and the spiritual practices employed by spiritual traditions are remarkably similar. A question like “What happens when you pray about that?” is valid regardless of whether the speaker (or the hearer) is Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Native American!

Your caregiver may also surprise you with his or her knowledge of your tradition. Caregivers are often used to working with people of diverse cultures and traditions, and are often well informed about many of them. Most importantly, remember that no matter how exotic your caregiver appears to be, he or she cares about you, respects you and your spiritual path, and wants to help.

If you are a professional caregiver or just a compassionate person who has an opportunity to give comfort in a difficult moment, remember that a person in need—no matter what his or her faith tradition—has the same needs as you do. Grieving people need comfort, and frightened people need encouragement. You will not be able to use the sources of spiritual wisdom (such as liturgy or scripture) that you would with someone of your own faith, but kind words, caring presence, and reassuring touch are universal.

Remember to be humble about the truth claims of your own faith—what we don’t know is always far greater than what we do know. And while our own tradition is rightly precious to us, it is not the only way to walk a spiritual path. “Different” doesn’t mean “wrong.” We must always be diligent not to fall into the trap of privileging what is dear to us.

Please remember that trying to convert or invalidate the faith of someone who is in a vulnerable place is a betrayal of trust. For professionals, it is malpractice. Even if your personal theology emphasizes conversion, remember that as a professional caregiver, you hold a position of public trust. Do not betray it.

There is no harm in praying silently in whatever way feels natural. But when praying aloud, make sure to use neutral language, or (better yet) use the prayer forms and language favored by the tradition of the person you are caring for.

People don’t need “fixing,” they don’t need suggestions or answers. What they need most is a compassionate ear and the loving presence of another human being. Keep in mind that the Divine does the healing work in any difficult situation, not us. The most effective caregivers are those who know how to get out of the way and allow the Divine to do the work. The best way to do this is to be as aware of the Divine presence as you are of the person you are caring for.

Rev. Mabry is director of the Interfaith Spiritual Direction program at the Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, California.

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