Tag: LGBT chaplain

Hatred isn’t pretend.

Since I published my first novel almost two years ago, I’ve received a lot of feedback in the form of online reviews. For the most part, these have been positive and encouraging. I realize that my soft-boiled Southern mysteries aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of sweet tea though, so I’ve come to accept that I’ll inevitably receive the occasional one or two-star review. Every time I do, my skin just grows a little thicker. (At least that’s how I’m explaining the weight I’ve gained over that period of time). Everyone’s entitled to an an opinion, right? It’s only a novel after all.

Or is it? One kind of bad review that’s cropped up a few times which my superthickened skin (which, incidentally, must weigh at least four pounds based on the weight I’ve gained) still can’t ward off comes in the form of a diatribe from anti-gay Christians. These are the folks who don’t like my books because they feature a homosexual character who works as a Christian hospital chaplain. At first, I was tempted to shrug off the comments of these apoplectic reviewers, who, by the way, often seem to have defective keyboards that are permanently stuck on ALL CAPS. After all, my books aren’t romances, and this character’s sexuality is, in the main, peripheral to the plot. But a Zen level of shrug-offery isn’t so easy to achieve. Some of these reviewers hated, or were disgusted by, my book just because it contained a gay Christian character, whose monogamous relationship is portrayed in a positive light. If just the idea of such a person could elicit such a strong reaction, what must life be like for actual LGBT Christians? And does that vitriol get handed out in double measure to LGBT ministers?

My first experience with the intersection of homosexuality and religion came in the form of a young man who attended the Baptist church where I passed my Sundays (and Wednesday nights, and some Saturdays. We were big on church.) as a child. This young man was active in the youth group, volunteered to help with the Sunday school program, and was generally thought of as a great guy. However, after he left his parents’ home, he came out as gay. He was never seen at church again. In fact, the church leaders went so far as to make it clear to him that he wasn’t welcome–performing whatever bureaucratic ritual comprises the Baptist version of excommunication. A mighty fortress is our God indeed–with gays and lesbians firmly on the outside the fortress walls.

That was more than twenty years ago, but things haven’t moved on as much as the #lovewins hashtag and the recent Supreme Court victory might indicate. In more recent years, I’ve heard of a hospital chaplain being spit on and another being tossed out of a room. I’ve heard of an Episcopalian minister being asked to be discreet about the existence of her wife in certain situations or among certain constituents.

Look, I’m not claiming that because some meanies said they didn’t like my books, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against or suffer under the yoke of oppression. And by no means do I wish to rain on the (pride) parade of those who are justifiably elated by the expansion of the definition of marriage. I also know that there are many, many people of faith who welcome their LGBT brothers and sisters with compassion and openness. I guess I’m just saying that I wish prejudice and hatred were things that could be contained within the pages of a novel. Then we could easily close the book on them once and for all.

Rev. Laura Arnold talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of colostomy bags

In Part Two of our Minty Fresh interview, Rev. Laura Arnold–former hospital chaplain, current pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ and Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal–talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of blessing colostomy bags. Read Part One of the interview.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Many of the chaplains I worked with had keen senses of humor. Do you think that being able to see find the lightness in dark situations is important for the job? Was there a time when finding the humor in a tough situation allowed you or a patient to get through something bad?

Laura Arnold (LA): Humor is absolutely essential for chaplaincy, be that playfulness with patients at times or the use of humor and joking with chaplain colleagues as a way of processing and coping with the situations we are faced with.

One afternoon, I was called to visit with a patient who had just been through a procedure to get a colostomy bag. She was depressed and not sure that God could love her anymore. It was hard to focus on her words as the pressure of her body produced an actively audible gargling bag of waste. “Let’s bless your colostomy bag!” I announced during our conversation. She burst into laughter—roaring about whether or not I’d have to use oil or water, whether I’d have to hold the bag, and whether I could stomach even being in the room much longer with the eruptive gurgling and the stench. I’ll admit it was the strangest idea I’d had in a while, but I’ll tell you it was one of the most remarkable and honest times of blessing and prayer I’ve had. We could be honest as well as playful about the absurdness of the experience, but name that, even in the midst of it, God was there with her.

Playfulness was constantly present with my chaplaincy colleagues. We kept a list of public service announcements that we would occasionally act out. My favorite tales and skits included these: don’t tick off your spouse if they are carrying a

This was not a good idea.
Public Service Announcement: This was not a good idea.

hatchet, but in the event you do, ask them to leave it in your head until you get to the ER; drinking on rooftops is generally a bad idea as is having sex on a bridge without good guard rails; masturbating on the gear shift of your car is generally a bad idea as it leads to an awkward need for Xanax after having your car towed to the trauma bay.

MFM: From TV, we’ve learned important facts about hospitals. For example, thanks to accurate, fact-based documentaries like General Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER, we know that hospitals are populated almost entirely with hot, young doctors and nurses who all sleep with each other. Did your own experience working closely with doctors and nurses differ in any way from those highly realistic portrayals?

LA: I generally find medical dramas to be a bit over the top and roll my eyes at how they portray reviving folks in cardiac arrest through the cleanest, gentlest looking CPR imaginable (y’all, seriously, it’s intense in person) or portray such mild suffering experience by so many folks in their last bit of life or make it seem like every case has a fully collaborative team of well-rested, properly nourished, Ivy league trained physicians. The reality is that most docs and nurses I’ve worked with are exhausted, emotionally drained, and generally overwhelmed by their patient load. Many experience stressed home lives because of their own compassion fatigue and disconnection with their families, simply because they don’t have one more ounce of energy to give when they get home. I’d love to see a show that grappled with the hard questions nurses and docs face: when ought treatment shift towards palliative care rather than charge on at full steam, what the moral implications of what patients receive kinds of treatment, and how do you help prepare someone to die well? And I’d like a network show to include chaplains. Seriously, how is it that the Colbert Report had a chaplain repeatedly on the show and not one hospital drama does?

Rev. Laura Arnold on chasing chickens and strapping on a crash helmet

Self-proclaimed church nerd Laura Arnold served as a hospital chaplain and as the Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast UCC Conference in Atlanta, GA.  She currently serves as pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ in Decorah, Iowa and as the Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal. She is active in her local community, seeking to demonstrate God’s love in the world. In Part One of the Minty Fresh Mysteries interview, Rev. Arnold shares some of the wit and wisdom that served her well during her time as a healthcare chaplain.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Burnout seems to be serious occupational hazard for chaplains. Was that a factor at all in your decision to transition from healthcare chaplaincy to parish ministry?

collar and brickLaura Arnold (LA): Though I have always been drawn to the local parish (and get church nerd excited about all aspects of church life—even meetings), chaplaincy was a seemingly perfect balance between the adrenaline junkie in me and my love of pastoral presence and theological reflection.

But there was a turning point.  I wouldn’t call it burnout as much as warping of worldview after being a part of the aftermath of so many devastating injuries and violence. I began to presume that pregnancies were inherently dangerous and healthy infants were rare, that violence was a normal experience, that everyone I loved was going to wreck their car and suffer a brain injury, etc.  In truth the warping of my worldview happened over a long period of time, so it wasn’t until the morning I started to strap a bike helmet to my head before getting in the car that I started seriously considering what the work of chaplaincy was doing to my spirit.  I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be and knew it was time to transition to another form of ministry. That said, I wouldn’t trade my years in chaplaincy for anything.  It was a tremendous and overall amazing place to serve.

MFM: You’ve shared with me that you had some pretty, ahem, colorful encounters with patients and their families, like the time a patient’s family member put his hand on your rear end during a prayer circle. (I’m totally going to use that in a future Lindsay Harding book, by the way.) What’s another example of a time when a patient’s family or friends were really undermining your ability to provide spiritual care?

LA: A family asked for an anointing and blessing upon a dying family member.  We scheduled a time for the next day when the family could all be present.  I wrote a beautiful liturgy and was honored to preside given that I had formed a long standing pastoral relationship with the patient as he was dying.  When I got to the room, oil and liturgy in hand, a brother announced that they had decided to check out the phonebook and call in a “real pastor.”  Ignoring their brother’s wishes, the family decided that I as a woman did not have proper authority to provide spiritual care.

As difficult as family and friends of patients sometimes were, staff members also managed to doubt the validity of our role. It was 3:04 a.m. when I was called by a charge nurse for an “urgent consultation.”  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and fixed my hair before heading up to the floor.  The nurse only pointed to the patient’s room and announced that he was incredibly upset and “needed some Jesus.”  What the patient actually said he needed was to have the chickens chased out of his room because their clucking was keeping him awake. Given that his experience of his hallucination was real, I proceeded to run around the room, arms swinging wide open, “gathering the chickens,” then loudly announcing that I was taking them all to the elevator to send them downstairs and outside.  The report was that he was asleep within 15 minutes of the chickens’ being driven out.  While I’m thankful that he finally slept, I wonder what in the world prompted the nurse to call me.  I continue to wonder if it was misconception of what chaplains do or if it was a manipulative use of power.

Read Part Two of the interview with Rev. Laura

False Advertising, Indeed.

Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally asked friends and acquaintances to describe a typical chaplain. If people have any notions at all, they reference Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H—a Christian, middle-aged, celibate dude with a kindly twinkle in his blue eyes. I suspect that even in the era of the Korean War, that stereotype bore little resemblance to reality, and there can be no doubt that the Father Mulcahys of the world don’t make up the majority of the ranks of today’s chaplaincy. But the myth of the typical chaplain endures.

Being a chaplain isn’t a typical job, though. While there are federal non-discrimination laws that would bar a corporation from hiring or firing someone based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, religious denominations are still free to ordain only those whom they deem worthy to provide pastoral care. So, depending on a person’s religious background, they may never have seen a faith professional who doesn’t conform to the mold that their denomination lays out. When these folks meet a chaplain, they may come to that interaction with a very narrowly proscribed vision of the right “man” for the job.

So what do you do when you’re not one of the Father Mulcahys of the world? At times, it’s hard to hide the fact that you don’t meet someone’s expectation of what a chaplain should be. When a female chaplain walks into a hospital room, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not, for example, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or, say, the Pope. But what about those attributes that we can hold inside ourselves—our deeply held spiritual or political beliefs or our sexual orientations?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dilemmas that humanist/agnostic/non-conformist and LGBTQ chaplains confront. At what point should they “out” the part of themselves that may not jive with someone’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Here’s what got me thinking. I write murder mysteries about a fictional hospital chaplain in small-town North Carolina. Mostly, the books’ reception has been positive. But a reader recently posted this flaming one-star review to Amazon.com:

This review is from: A Murder in Mount Moriah (Reverend Lindsay Harding Mystery, Book No. 1) (Kindle Edition)

The cover says “A REVEREND Lindsay Harding Mystery.” Now I have no problems with women who are called into the ministry…and…I fully recognize that ministers are fallen human beings with good and bad moments, too. But a woman of the cloth who…enthusiastically supports the gay lifestyle of her boss, who is also an ordained minister…? No. Just no. False advertising indeed.

This review was titled “False advertising!,” and I suspect this reader felt tricked because no mention is made of a gay character’s sexuality until you meet his partner (well into the book).

Should I include cautionary labels for those who don’t like the idea of a gay chaplain?!

The experience made me wonder: am I under an obligation to warn readers about the liberal/progressive content of my books, even though there is no sex whatsoever and only one brief (heterosexual) kiss? And if I am, how would I do it, short of putting a Tipper Gore-style cautionary label on my covers like “Contains a chaplain who wrestles with the nature and existence of God,” or perhaps titling the next volume, “The Liberal Murder Mystery with the Gay Chaplain in It”? And in real life, should chaplains let people see their “content,” or should they simply remain closed books?

Theoretically, this wouldn’t come up as an issue very often. Pastoral care doesn’t provide a stage for chaplains to shimmy across, displaying their personal theologies and ideologies like Vegas showgirls. And there’s a reason that chaplains don’t carry ramrods; chaplaincy isn’t an evangelical mission. However, in order to build rapport, especially in longer-term pastoral relationships, it is sometimes natural and even necessary to engage in personal conversations. Some of those in spiritual care need that sort of quid pro quo sharing in order to establish trust. The Reverend Laura Arnold, a former hospital chaplain who now serves as a United Church of Christ minister in Iowa, vividly described this dilemma in her 2012 article “Life as a Queer Chaplain” on Kim Knight’s wonderful Patheos blog. Rev. Arnold talks about that knife-edge moment that many queer chaplains experience when deciding whether to play the pronoun game when asked about their romantic relationships. Is it worth the risk of potentially rupturing a relationship with a patient? Is it worth the sometimes soul-diminishing pain of ignoring a patient’s homophobic rant or disparaging comments about non-believers, when these things go right to the heart of one’s identity?

I’m not sure there is a right answer, and in some ways all of us deal with versions of what I call The Thanksgiving Dilemma. That is, do you call Great Aunt Pearlene out for making crude, racist comments about your sister’s new Filipino boyfriend, or do you just bite your tongue, keep the peace, and pass the gravy? Rev. Laura was able to reconcile her own position by embodying, “a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.” She said she feels privileged to be able to convey God’s love by fully inhabiting her identity.

For myself, all I can do is keep writing about my little by little my bunch of diverse, quirky, and fully human chaplains, hoping that they can crack open a tiny space in the hearts of readers. And that in that space, acceptance can take root and kindness can come into full flower.

Do you have a solution to the Thanksgiving Dilemma? Share it in the comments section!

Excerpt of the Patheos blog used with permission. Read the full text of Reverend Laura Arnold’s article on “Life as a Queer Chaplain.” 

Originally published in PlainViews September 3, 2014, Volume 11 No. 16. Reprinted with permission.