As individuals specially trained to minister outside the structure of religious institutions, chaplains exemplify and inspire a more ecumenical world. Most chaplains provide ministry in a multi-faith context where they perform worship or sacred rituals for those of their own faith tradition as well as those of other faiths. Hospital and long-term care home chaplains minister to the dying who may belong to religions far different from their own. Military and prison chaplains are called to provide pastoral care to people separated from their own religious organizations either by the judicial system or because they are deployed and stationed far from home.
But it’s not only the people they serve that encourages ecumenism; chaplains regularly work with people from other faith backgrounds, too. When he was a U.S. Army military chaplain, Tim Rietkerk was part of a team that included Catholic priests, a rabbi, an imam, a chaplain from the Church of Christ Scientist, and one from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Rietkerk spent 20 years as an army chaplain followed by one year as a chaplain resident in the Veteran Affairs Health Care System, and, more recently, as a hospice chaplain. “Almost 30 years after seminary,” he says, “I’m still serving as a chaplain, finding meaning in the call to be an agent of God’s grace in everyday life.”
Rietkerk is now the Director of Chaplaincy and Care Ministry for the Christian Reformed Church.
“We are a better society together under common grace when we serve alongside other faiths rather than making it adversarial,” Rietkerk reflects. “It’s about cooperation, not compromise. It has been said that as a chaplain you build your spiritual rolodex. You know who to call when you need them. Building and establishing relationships [with those of other faith traditions] is key.”
Longing for God’s presence
Those relationships are also important for spiritual care teams in the hospital setting, where the focus is not on differences between faith groups but on the spiritual needs of patients.
“When I started as a chaplaincy student,” Heather Roukema-Gritter, chaplain at a cancer care hospital in Edmonton, Alberta, says, “I came from the relatively narrow silo of the Christian Reformed Church community. Over the past 14 years, I have journeyed with thousands of patients in ICU, ER, palliative care, cancer care and stroke, medicine and surgery units. My patients have shown me that theological discussions fall away in light of the longing for a sense of God’s presence. People intuitively realize that the particular details of doctrine and dogma that split the hairs between what Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Mennonites and Christian Reformed believe are inconsequential compared to the need for assurance that God is with them and in their wondering about dying, death and the mystery that lies beyond this earthly existence.”
She recalls a touching ecumenical moment when a military padre (chaplain) with whom she was collaborating while caring for a soldier who had attempted suicide called “Hey padre!” to her down the hallway. On another occasion, she was offering trauma and anticipatory grief support to the adult children of a 55-year-old man who had suffered a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle collision. “As we discussed the medical plan to withdraw life support, they stated they could not bear to be at their dad’s bedside as this was done. I offered to stay with him and say a prayer over him, and they smiled saying, ‘Our dad would be so thrilled to know that a female ‘priest’ was praying for him as he died.’”
Seeking God’s face
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Erika Dekker has been a hospital chaplain for 20 years at Spectrum Health, where the Spiritual Care Department has chaplains from within the Christian tradition only. “In my experience, we all respect each other’s traditions. The focus is very much on our shared departmental mission which is to provide healing to the human spirit.”
“We do not assign patients according to denominational affiliation,” she says. “Instead, we are assigned to particular units so that we can also become integrated into the multi-disciplinary team and become known as the face of spiritual care in the hospital.”
“Our chaplain-priest regularly says mass in the hospital chapel so that patients, families and staff can participate,” she says. “While the eucharist itself is limited to professing Catholics and Catholics in good standing, there is nothing barring anyone who wants to attend the service. I’ve attended the mass a number of times for personal spiritual nourishment and, without fail, whenever I do, the chaplain-priest invites me to do one of the Bible readings. And I always say yes! I love this experience of the ecumenical spirit. It’s so natural and matter-of-fact for both of us. It may be a small thing, but it is significant, powerful and beautiful.”
“Time and again,” concludes Roukema-Gritter, “I have heard from people that, at the end of the day and at the end of their days, the finer theological distinctions are not the hill to die on. Connection with God and spiritual comfort supersedes doctrine, dogma and denominations. Truly the heart of the gospel is grace, love and peace.”
Editor’s note: Four Chaplains and ecumenical grace in 1943
Although it happened almost 78 years ago, the story of four U.S. Army chaplains from different faith backgrounds – a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Methodist pastor and a Dutch Reformed minister – who gave their lives together in wartime still speaks powerfully about ecumenism and chaplaincy.
On February 3, 1943, the U.S. Army troop ship SS Dorchester was part of a convoy moving across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to an American base in Greenland. Carrying 902 servicemen, merchant seamen and civilian workers, it was only 150 miles from its destination when it was targeted by a German submarine and quickly sank. Of the 230 individuals who survived, many told of the chaplains’ efforts to restore calm in a hopeless and chaotic situation, and how they gave away their life jackets so others might live. They were last seen at the ship’s stern, standing together, arms linked, heads bowed in prayer.
In A Moment of Ecumenical Grace, Ellen Wilson Fielding says, “The four chaplains were lovers of God and lovers of souls who saw past denominational controversies – however real the doctrinal differences that divided them – to our common relationship as children of our heavenly Father.”
Every November 11 in Canada is a chance to honour those who gave their lives during wartime.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Meghan Kort’s coverage of a chaplain’s response to the Iran plane crash last January.
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