Thank you to EcoFaith supporter Susan Halvor in Anchorage, Alaska for forwarding this article to us. It is re-printed below with permission of author Rabbi Katy Z. Allen. This article originally appeared in APC e-News published by the Association of Professional Chaplains. Reprinted with permission of APC.
A Call for a New Kind of Chaplain
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen BCC
Places where it is hard to be, places where we can’t get out, such as prisons, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and the military – these are places where chaplains quietly make their rounds, endeavoring to provide a non-anxious presence in the midst of high anxiety, in the midst of illness, aging, death, imprisonment and war. Chaplains working in high-intensity places listen to people’s stories, allowing space for telling and expressing, for tears and for release. Chaplains pray with people, naming the sacred in moments filled with pain and anguish, and bringing a measure of relief, renewed courage and strength to aching hearts.
In today’s world, a new kind of chaplain is needed. Climate change is threatening our planet. Temperatures are rising steadily, average rainfall is dropping, sea levels are rising, storm events are increasing in frequency and severity, and species are rapidly going extinct. The list of dire predictions goes on and on.
All of us – everyone who lives on Planet Earth – are in a place where it is hard to be, in a place from which we can’t get out. We can’t get away from climate change; we can’t board a spaceship for Planet B. We are stuck here on our shrinking, warming planet that we love so much and depend on so totally. We are all in the sort of place where a chaplain’s presence is needed.
Our ancient religious traditions are rooted in a life that was closer to the land, water and sky than the life we live today. Thus, the roots of a new kind of chaplaincy – nature chaplaincy, eco-chaplaincy, Creation chaplaincy, Earth chaplaincy – are present to us in our sacred texts, available to be searched out, found and reconnected to.
What is an Earth chaplain? What does a nature chaplain do? Where does an eco-chaplain work? How is a Creation chaplain different from a hospital or long-term care chaplain? The answers are many and diverse, and still to be explored, but here are a few thoughts about the role of this new – yet also very, very old – kind of chaplain:
- Nature chaplains facilitate healing connections between people and the natural world.
- Earth chaplains hold the pain and suffering of an individual or a group in the context of the natural world.
- Eco-chaplains honor the pain and suffering of the Earth.
- Creation chaplains help to awaken people’s senses to seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling greater depths of connection to the sacred universe.
- Earth chaplains facilitate the opening of hearts and minds to the vastness and the minuteness of the universe.
- Eco-chaplains honor people’s discomfort or unfamiliarity with the natural world.
- Nature chaplains remind people of the sacredness of the created world as they stand in its midst.
- Earth chaplains create the openings needed for people to journey from despair to hope and action.
What does all this mean? If an Earth chaplain comes to my community, what can I expect?
The role of the Earth or nature chaplain is as varied as the role of the hospital or prison chaplain:
- She may teach from the sacred texts of the Earth, of religious traditions and of our personal lives.
- He may listen to your stories of loss, blessing, or despair for the planet and humankind, of your personal journey through life, and of your fear for your children and grandchildren.
- She may take you out of doors, in your neighborhood, in a nearby park or conservation area, and provide guided activities or meditations to help you awaken your senses to the natural world of which we are a part.
- He may challenge you to identify your personal and collective responsibility to the One Planet.
- She may pray with you, enhancing your connection to G!d and the Universe.
- He may facilitate a spiritual conversation and discussion about climate change, consumerism, community, pollution and more, within a family or a community.
- She may ask the questions no one else has the courage to ask, allowing space for difficult conversations about the perilous state of our planet, about which the inner recesses of your heart already feel deeply.
Who would, or should or could, hire a nature chaplain? Existing eco-and nature chaplains work more as community chaplains, coming into existing institutions not as staff members but as invited guests, speakers, teachers, counselors and leaders.
- A congregation could hire a nature chaplain to help congregants explore in new ways the connections between their faith and the Earth, and to provide workshops, retreats or other sessions, allowing a forum for people to voice their fears and despair.
- A business or corporation could hire a Creation chaplain to provide a spiritual voice and global perspective to decision-making, to provide experiences to build community and relationships with the Earth as the source of all resources used in the business.
- A school could hire an Earth chaplain to teach about environmental ethics and to provide outdoor experiences to further impact the students’ intellectual learning.
- A community center could host deep conversations on matters of concern to the planet.
A few existing nature and Earth chaplains, some rooted in an Earth-based or pagan spirituality, are already at work. But our world needs this new kind of chaplaincy to grow, prosper and become mainstream, to hold us as we journey into an unknown and frightening future. What that requires is for us to allow, encourage and support the development and innovation required to build a world filled with Creation chaplains and eco-chaplains.
Like every other chaplain, these new chaplains may be rooted in any religious or spiritual tradition, but will serve people of all faiths and no faith, providing emotional and spiritual support in times of stress and distress. The presence of nature chaplains rooted in mainstream religious traditions will meet a currently unmet need that is growing within our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.
For a chaplain working in a hospital or other facility, every day is different. So, too, it will be in the newly emerging field of Earth chaplaincy or nature chaplaincy. Every day will be different because every community an Earth chaplain enters will be different, and every person’s individual circumstances and stories will be different. The field is wide open and the opportunities are endless. It is up to us to envision, create and implement this new field of chaplaincy. And so, I invite you to join the nascent field of nature chaplaincy and help it become a reality.
- Are you interested in giving of your wisdom to help guide the birthing of Earth chaplaincy?
- Are you able to support the endeavors of pioneer nature chaplains?
- Might you want to become an Earth chaplain or simply connect with others in this emerging field?
- Would your community or house of worship be interested in engaging with an eco-chaplain?
- Do you have ideas, or would you like to brainstorm ideas as to how to bring Creation chaplains to the people who need them most?
If the answer to any of these questions is YES, or if you are in some other way interested in nature chaplaincy, please be in touch and help this vision become a reality. Now more than ever, our planet and its inhabitants need a non-anxious presence.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, and the founder and leader of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, a congregation without walls that holds services outdoors all year round. Through the developing Nature Chaplaincy Program of Ma’yan Tikvah and Open Spirit Center, she leads interfaith programs connecting nature and spirituality. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network in Boston and is co-chair of the Wayland Walks program. She is a board certified member of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Check out her website at: http://mayantikvah.blogspot.com/