becoming a chaplain

February 7, 2016

spiritual practice

Last year I qualified as a Chaplain. It was a lot of hard work. I was the square peg in the round hole – Aboriginal, not overly religious, questioning. We had to do three-day intensives every few months. I became so overwhelmed on the first intensive, I cried a lot. Most of the fifty people who attended the intensive  were Pentecostal. It was a culture shock for me.

With each intensive, I started to learn more about my fellow students. Almost all of them had suffered incredible hardship throughout their lives, and had found through Christianity a way to move forward with love in their hearts. They should  have been broken and bitter, but instead they were compassionate and caring. They had generous spirits and willing hands to serve others in whatever way they could.

At the end of the year, we had to give a speech about what brought us to chaplaincy, and the chaplaincy work that we do. We had to finish with a parable or passage from the Bible that related to the content of our speech. My speech was very well received. The other students appreciated my honesty.

“I would like to acknowledge the traditional caretakers and custodians of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

My father is from Gamillaroi Country. The Gamillaroi are ‘freshwater’ people. My mother is from Cadigal Country. The Cadigal are ‘saltwater’  people. My people have lived in the dominant white culture for the past four generations. I grew up in Dharawal Country and now live in Gundungurra Country. I work in Dharug Country. See how multicultural I am?

My name is an Aboriginal name which means ‘woman from the sea’. I am not here to talk about the hardship, dysfunction, despair, and sorrow of my family because those terms are synonymous with Aboriginal people and have almost become a rite of passage in some communities.

I want to talk about this interesting path I have been walking the past few years.

I grew up in a Godless family.

We grew our own food, celebrated the seasons, and danced in the rain. We talked a lot about social justice, race, gender, poetry, and politics. My Dad worked in a psychiatric hospital and every school holidays we visited his work to meet the patients. We didn’t celebrate Easter or Christmas because they were God’s days and we didn’t follow a God.

I remember my Aboriginal grandfather with tears rolling down his face, saying “How can there be a God?” He could not believe that a God would allow the hardship and heartbreak that befell Aboriginal people in this country, often at the hands of churches. He lamented the loss of Culture and Country.

Late in my teens I began to explore a range of religions and philosophies– Hare Krsna, Zen Buddhism, Risho Kosekai Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. Later I moved on to Metaphysics, Shamanism, Hermetics, and Druidry. Looking for the spirituality I could feel comfortable in took the best part of 30 years for me.

In 2012, a spiritual friend wrote to me…

“Allow yourself to receive love from the Divine and let yourself be nurtured as you have nurtured others. Be a living example to many to take care of their own connection to Source first and then take practical action in the world. Bring awareness to the smallest details and find the beauty within even the darkest places.”

It sounded great but I was resistant to any suggestion that I should follow a God.

On New Year’s Day in 2013, my youngest son sparked my interest in Christianity. He was 7 years old. He has a passion for story. He has always been a storyteller, a “yarner” as we say in Aboriginal culture. He loves doing scripture class at school because the teacher tells stories from the Bible. On this particular day, he wanted me to sit with him and watch the Cecille B deMille movie about Moses. During the movie, my son told me what was going to happen next. It wasn’t spoilers because his passion filled the room.

One of my favourite moments of the movie, was when Moses’ wife said to him as he came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments “the light of God is on your face”. Moses struggled with the existence of a God. He thought he was not worthy. I am not an atheist. I have had too many mystical experiences to deny the existence of spirit. But I do struggle with feeling worthy of receiving. So this was my challenge.

A few months later, I spent 10 days at Mary MacKillop Place for training. I spent my time during the breaks sitting in peaceful contemplation in the light-filled garden. I placed my eyes upon the religious statues and sat with the discomfort. I was making peace with all of my family of origin bias against Christianity and Catholicism – stripping back the layers, the years of negative programming. It wasn’t something I consciously needed or wanted to do, it was unfolding in front of me. I could identify with St Mary MacKillop. She worked with disadvantaged children. I worked with disadvantaged children. She was active in Aboriginal communities. I started talking to St Mary.

Back in 2012, I had taken a position, one day per week as a student wellbeing worker in a small public school in Dharug Country to compliment the family work that I had been doing for 17 years. In 2014 student wellbeing workers were being transitioned to chaplains. I thought that if I was going to be a chaplain, I should probably figure out what a chaplain is. I looked into doing chaplaincy studies. Then, I thought that because I was interested in studying chaplaincy I should probably go to church. There is an Anglican church a short walk from where I live.

My husband, a Catholic through and through, was incredulous. He offered to take me to the Catholic church. I declined his offer. “They’re too superior” I said half-jokingly, “and the initiation process is too lengthy”.

Him: We were first. Those Anglicans were created because Henry the VIIIth wanted to chop off his wife’s head.

Me: Well I’ll be in good company then, I’ll fit in well with the misfits and ratbags.

Him: St Mary won’t like you.

Me: She already likes me and I’m a heathen.

Him: They’ll make you do some kind of initiation.

Me: I won’t have to get wet will I?

Him: No, that’s the Baptists.

Me: There are too many people in the Catholic service. And they won’t accept me because I haven’t done their studies and been blessed five million ways. I will forever be tainted with ‘original sin’ in their eyes.

Me: Do I have to get dressed up or take a packet of biscuits?

He looked at me like I was asking the most ridiculous question ever.

Him: “Don’t worry, the cross at the front will be the first to get hit by the lightning”.

Ha! The church doesn’t have a cross at the front. It doesn’t even look like a church. It looks like a scout hall. It is completely and utterly humble, and it is perfect.

On the 1st of June 2014 I went to church. I thought that it couldn’t be too bad. What’s wrong with hearing about Jesus? Jesus was cool. The service was pleasant. The minister described the historical context of what he was talking about and it all made sense. My social justice radar was alert to any kind of bashing – you know, other faiths, gay people, women, etc. There was none, so I was mildly impressed. I’m not a hypocrite, I’m just very intolerant of intolerance. There weren’t any elaborate rituals that made me feel like I was in the wrong club because I didn’t know them. At the end of the service, the minister made time to welcome me and have a chat, and his wife too. At no stage did I feel awkward or that I shouldn’t be there.

It hasn’t all been easy, there have been some lows. But this I know – I go to church, and there I am me. I am not: someone’s mother; someone’s spouse; or known for the work I do. I walk the 15 minutes uphill to church for the 8:30am session. The minister talks about love, care, nurture, concern, life’s lessons, responsibility, and Jesus. We sing songs about Jesus, and yeah! he is pretty cool. There is a prayer at the end of the service for all of the events and people locally and abroad where there are struggles and strife, and it’s done in a heartfelt way. We meet afterwards for a social chat, so friendly and affirming. I have meaningful conversations with the people there, and I feel seen and heard. The walk home is all downhill.

I feel like I am better for it – bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind. That one hour service, once per week helps to fill my cup. There are no elaborate rituals and this is incredibly liberating. I have handed control over to something higher and more powerful than me. There is no more wondering, pondering, or consternation over the meaning of life. It’s as easy as breathing.

I have been working at the school for the past three years, and I now consider myself a chaplain. The school has less than 100 students. Within a month of starting at the school, I caught a student looking for something to hang a rope from (he was a deeply troubled boy). In the first 2 years I had seen about 30 students, some for a one-off session, some every week for a whole year. This number did not include the students I saw for small groups. I also worked with the parents of the students. What I wasn’t prepared for was that teachers also talked to me about their personal and professional concerns.

In my three years as a chaplain I have had the honour and privilege of walking alongside children, parents, and teachers experiencing a wide range of issues, including grief, loss, depression, anxiety, diagnosis of various disorders, domestic violence, suicide, social issues, mental illness, transitions, parental separation, abuse and neglect.

I hang around at recess and lunch time with the students. I speak with the children who seem lonely or upset, and see if I can link them up with someone to play with. I am horrible at hula hoop and handball, but don’t do too badly at kicking a soccer ball. Mostly I don’t get involved in the children’s play. I am not there to be their friend, I am their safe hands. I don’t rouse on kids because I have to be regarded as emotionally safe. When a child is breaking a school rule, I call on the nearest teacher to sort it out. Sometimes kids come up to me and tell me odd little things, like a little kindergarten girl who earnestly told me several months ago that the world is going to end in September, and she knew that because her Mum read it on Facebook. The teachers are astonished at what the kids tell me. If I was busy playing or doing, I wouldn’t be available to be present for the students.

The principal, concerned that they won’t get the chaplaincy funding for next year, asked me recently if I could teach the teachers how to do what I do. I told him that he couldn’t do what I do, as I have the luxury of being able to listen to a child for up to an hour, sometimes whilst drawing, playing basketball, or making paper airplanes. Just as I can’t do what teachers do, like running records for literacy or teach a maths lesson. We all have our own job to do. However, what I have noticed is that the teachers are more attuned to the social and emotional needs of the students now than when I started three years ago. The principal calls me their ‘critical friend’ because I show them a different way of being, knowing, and doing.

At a public school it is forbidden to talk with a student about religion unless they initiate it. Chaplaincy is about bringing out the values that all humans need regardless of race, faith, gender, circumstance, or ability – care, nurture, attention, acceptance, kindness, and feeling heard and understood. This is important work in the life of a school, and it does effect life-altering and sustainable change.

The following parable has a lot of meaning to me in working with children. I know that its actual meaning relates to the word of God. However, I find that it speaks to the environments in which children are raised. Years ago, an Aboriginal Elder told me “you can’t grow a strong tree if you don’t have strong roots”. If the environment is harsh and unyielding children will not thrive.

Schools can live without a chaplain but they would prefer not to. The chaplain’s influence helps to make a school more stable and grounded. I am the third leg of the stool. The connection, care, and communication that the chaplain facilitates for teachers, students, and parents enriches the school environment, and provides a soft landing place for those people bumping up against the constraints of his/her world.

Reading: Parable of the Sower Mark 4:1-9 New King James version

4 And again He began to teach by the sea. And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea. 2 Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:

3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. 5 Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. 6 But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. 7 And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. 8 But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”

9 And He said to them, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”





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