Cultural Encounters of a Growing Kind — Christopher Bear Beam

One of the richest adventures I’ve had in my adult life was the cultural encounters working as a resident chaplain in an urban setting.  I worked for two years for a major hospital system in Houston, Texas.  This hospital system had a mission statement of serving its diverse community and offering appropriate pastoral care.  What I came to understand from this work experience was the incredible ethnic diversity as well as the religious diversity represented by patients in the hospital.  I learned this as I made my rounds through the ER, ICU, Ambulatory Care, and other surgical units.

I have to say that I often learned by my mistakes.  I am a sixty-one year old European American male, so I’ve had lots to learn.  I had already begun my multicultural journey in 1996, and by this time it was 2002-2004.  I’ve been mentored and trained to be a co-facilitator in presentations to various groups and coalitions of individuals and organizations by Cherry Steinwender, the Co-Executive Director of The Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston, who has helped me to understand American diversity in much more than just an academic way. This was different, however.  This was “down and dirty” experiential learning—sometimes of the most painful kind as I learned about my own Unaware Racism.  One night, while on call all night, I met a young Asian woman in the cafeteria.  I asked her if I could join her and introduced myself as the “on call chaplain.”

I began asking her questions about her background and where she grew up.  She described coming to the U.S from Thailand with her family.  She spent some time on a boat during the journey, and then tearfully described seeing a rape of a young woman by some robbers.  As I asked her more questions, and listened to her story, trying to empathize with this horrendous experience, I realized I was doing so in some kind of clinical, non-verbal way, without much pathos or feeling.  As I reflect on this, I can see that I knew so little about her culture, and what it took to get out of her country, I projected a kind of sympathy onto her, and she felt misunderstood and not really heard by me.  She finally blurted out, through her tears, that I didn’t understand, and simply shut down in her conversation with me.  Now, much later, I understand much better the reason for this.

We Americans are so narcissist and superior in our interactions with folks from a different ethnicity or culture that we come across grandiose and unfeeling.  In many places in the world, there’s still the belief that Whites are the most superior people in the world. To a large degree this is accurate, because our separated isolationism keeps us closed off from the experiences of those of color, the majority of the planet’s inhabitants.  As I view it, our denial keeps us from learning from the rich tapestry of cultural encounters and the people who live in a culture so different from ours.

The hospital became host to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, (I even met a Zoroastrian one time at the hospital, and there were Roams there also), Muslims, Jews, and Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians, New Age blends, atheists and agnostics.  Each major sect or group has its own cultural milieu of how it deals with death (there was no lack of this at the hospital).  They each have their own practices, rituals, prayers, use of authority, and customs related to death.  The incident most poignant in my mind was being called to the death of a Buddhist person.  I had just come out of the patient’s room, only minutes after the patient had died, and stood in the hall.  I heard comments from the nurses behind me at the nursing station.

I looked in the direction where they were looking, and I saw a huge group of Asian people walking towards me, very solemnly, and very sad.  Apparently, in the Buddhist tradition, all of the friends and family of the loved one who died had to come as one group.  Then there would be a number of prayers and rituals for the dead, and their custom was to wait near the dead person for a set space of time or until the soul had gone to its next resting place.

The Buddhists taught me the importance of honor, both to the living and the dead.  They showed me the absolute belief in the afterlife of the soul and spirit.  Finally, they taught me about the bond of community and family connection.  In short, I was initiated into this diverse, Buddhist way of death and dying.

One more example comes to mind, and took place within a Christian, cultural context.  One of my peer chaplains was a female, Catholic religious.  She was very wise, and worked hard to understand the various cultures in which she worked.  We were in ICU, and a patient had a very serious prognosis of death.  The family’s priest was called, when we were in ICU, and we found he was an Eastern Orthodox priest.  We got to the place and my female chaplain friend asked if they wanted us to pray with them, and they replied that they would.  As she began to pray, the priest declared in a very patronizing way, that since he was the male he should be the one to pray.  My friend backed off, and let the priest pray.  Afterwards, she was one angry woman as she processed the sexism she had just faced.  I was shocked as well, thinking that we were over this type of religious sexism, but then I realized that it was a shock back to the reality of the tenaciousness of patriarchal conditioning.

I’m grateful for this time of learning from diverse faith traditions, because these cultural encounters genuinely enriched me as a multicultural human being.

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