Spiritual journeys can take many forms, some come through our various traditions, calendars, and others are of a more personal nature. Be it a lifecycle moment (birth, coming of age, wedding, death), a moment of personal growth/crisis, or just a change in how you see the world around you. As chaplains, we are all familiar with these moments in life; our calling brings us into the lives of others as they go through their own journeys as well.
Here lies the blessing and challenge of chaplaincy, how do we share, care and assist others, as we endure through own our spiritual journeys? To quote one of my teachers, “You have to leave your life at the door when you are being of service to others.” In other words, our own concerns, worries, challenges, and joys should not be forced upon those we are trying to assist. Instead, a chaplain needs to learn to set aside his or her own preconceived ideas and ideals and be of service to those who are in their care. Chaplains need to maintain the dignity of every individual’s spiritual journey, regardless of faith or lack thereof. This is the cornerstone of chaplaincy, facilitating each person’s ability to find Creator in their own way.
Over the last year, I have found this precept of our calling to be essential in my daily practice as a chaplain at Central California Women’s Facility. Last March, a group of inmates requested a meeting with me to assist them in establishing services for their faith group, Santa Muerte (Saint Death), at the prison. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the modern form of this tradition, it began as an offshoot of the Catholic Church in Mexico about twenty years ago. The main beliefs of this religion focus upon worshiping a being who is a saintly version of Death.
At our first meeting, these women looked to be almost terrified of asking for help, since they were being rejected by the female inmate community. It seems that other inmates had told them that no one would possibly allow such a group to come to the chapel. They were unsure of even being allowed to meet let alone have a chaplain sponsor their group.
Now as a rabbi I have to admit that this was more than a little outside of my comfort zone. But as a chaplain, I understood that these women were asking for my help to facilitate what they could not do for themselves. While images of a skull and scythe were not a part of my own tradition, I had to set aside my own discomfort and do what was necessary, to make their simple request of coming together as a community of faith a reality. For the past year now these same women and many others have been gathering for weekly services in the Main Yard Chapel, here at CCWF. Even in the face of judgments from fellow inmates, their faith is so important to them that they have worked seriously at practicing their tradition.
Now I am aware that many of us do similar things on a daily basis, be it in a prison, youth facility, hospital or CalVet home. My reason for sharing this is to both acknowledge for myself, that even today on a personal level, this faith is not one that I am very comfortable with. But as a chaplain, I am gratified to see these women succeed in finding some spiritual comfort even in prison. While it may not be my taste, I am aware how important it is to find your own spiritual path in everyday life. In spite of the opposition of others, this community of faith has begun to offer each other, support, help and most importantly acceptance of each other in their shared journey.
If you have not yet had such an experience as a chaplain, I hope that someday you too will find a way to step outside of your comfort zone, assisting those who may not be able to find the path all by themselves and hoping that they will find a spiritual life to help them on their way.
Blessings to all in finding your own way,
Chaplain Paul Gordon
Central California Women’s Facility & Valley State Prison