Sunday, November 18, 2012

2012.11.18 Religiophobic??

“Don’t mention religion or God to them. You’ll be blasted out of the room...they’ve been hurt and are pissed,” said my brand new employer.

 I’d just been hired by as a chaplain in a new alcohol/drug rehabilitation center. I was a religious professional on the way to being ordained an Episcopal priest— and already there was a gag rule.

During my first week on the job I went to the detox area in fear and trembling to visit my very first patient, thinking the warning might be exaggerated, and reminding myself confidently that they had advertised for a chaplain. It was a title they wanted to change to pastoral counselor but I had lobbied  for Chaplain, a title with religious implications—and won.

“Get the f... out of here, you goddam religious freak!”  Noelle screeched before I even introduced myself.  I backed out of her room slowly and mumbled fleeting impotent words of comfort like it will be all right—for my own benefit. Then I went to find my supervisor to ask for a change of assignment.  She said no.

“Take it slow and easy,” she said.  “Detox is monstrous. She’ll be more reasonable when she is alcohol free. Just don’t mention religion or God.”

But I hadn’t.

When Noelle came to my office for her first post-detox meeting I was tense awaiting another assault. Instead she was cautiously friendly. It turned out that her reaction had been to a cross I’d worn. It was a gift from my husband and I loved it. I hadn't mentioned religion when we met; I hadn't needed to, I was wearing it around my neck. Noelle told me that her mother had beaten her up at night and preached religion at her all day. It wasn’t hard to listen to her painful story and to feel compassion.

“Why is the place where Jesus is supposed to hang empty on your cross?” she asked.

“Because he’s not there any more,”  I said.

“It’s kinda pretty,” she said.

I  took the cross off and let her hold it. She declined the offer to let her try it on, saying it was mine.  When Noelle left the treatment center after four weeks she looked well and happy.  I'd never suggested she go to church, and I don’t know if she held onto her sobriety. I pray so. She healed my fears and helped me be an authentic goddamn religious freak.

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Over time in my chaplaincy there I mentioned religion a lot in my work with addicts. Few were hostile; in fact many longed for the basic ideas and sacramental practices they’d known as kids. Every time someone came to see me it was a confession of sorts. Listening was absolving.  I used Bible stories like the prodigal son or daughter coming home to Love; spoke of prayer as a common denominator; offered ashes on Ash Wednesday,  and was bold enough to convert my office into a Meditation Room always open for prayer and quiet. No one came but it was there.

All these courageous alkies helped me become a goddamn religious freak of a woman priest.