Friday, October 26, 2007

They just don't get it (being a Jew in CPE)

The Jews have had the observance of Shabbat for well over two-thousand years now, but amazingly, the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (which, ironically, is dedicating its annual conference to multiculturalism and diversity), seems seems not to have figured this out, yet.
Tonight -- when observant Jews around the world will be dispensing with operating electrical devices and the consumption of popular media and entertainment as part of their core religious observance of Shabbat -- the association has chosen to schedule the event of most interest to Jews -- the showing of a bit of popular media about Jews.
It's a documentary film called Trembling Before God. The film is an intense examination of the struggle some observant Jews have faced with reconciling their core religious beliefs and practices with their realization that their sexual orientation is gay.
I know exactly what will happen tonight. The overwhelming Christian members of the association will be deeply touched by the film. But they'll also be confused. They won't understand some of the practices the people in the film were struggling with. They'll want to ask the Jews questions. And so they'll look around them. But the Jews won't be there (I, for example, will be celebrating Shabbat with a dear friend in North Dallas, dozens of miles away -- much too far for me to walk, even if I was willing to watch a film on Shabbat).
I wouldn't care so much if this was an isolated incident. But it's not. Next year, the association's annual conference, dubbed "Courageous Conversations: Division, Diversity and Dialogue," will probably be lacking any Jewish participants in that dialogue -- most of us will be elsewhere celebrating the holiday of Simhat Torah which falls on the first day of the conference. Even if I could get on a plane right after the holiday, I would still miss most of the conference.
And then there was the memorial service at the conference, yesterday. There are few things that feel more like a fundamentally Christian form to me than a choir. Now, admittedly, some Jews are ok with choirs, but why would experts in interfaith dialogue and learning -- like the CPE supervisors at this conference -- chose a form that is so potentially problematic? And not just for Jews. I have only been in a mosque a few times, but I can tell you that there was nothing that looked like a choir (or an organ or anything like that) in those mosques. Might a Muslim also find a choir a strange form that somehow feels Christian?
Now I want to add that I was deeply moved by parts of the memorial service (especially when Bob Cholke's name appeared on the screen). And also that I have found this conference incredibly valuable to me and that I am a big believer in CPE in general, in the ACPE in particular and in the incredibly wonderful work CPE does every day to help future clergy and other students become more sensitive to differences in people's beliefs and practices. The ACPE is most certainly an organization that is devoted to interfaith ministry in a profound way.
One of the senior supervisors at the conference listened to my story of how alienated and excluded I felt by the choir being in the memorial service and he challenged me to give him a picture of what would be more acceptable. I will respond to that challenge soon in a comprehensive way. But I want to just say a few quick things, first.
A part of the service that did work really well for me was the reading of a powerful poem by Maya Angelou called Elegy. Here are some of its lines:
I lie down in my grave
And watch my children
Proud blooms
above the weeds of death.
. . . the worms, my friends,
yet tunnel holes
bones and through those
apertures I see rain.
Why was this more acceptable? One reason is something that comes out of 'CPE 101' -- the importance of using "I" language when you are dialoging with someone about intense feelings or experiences. The voice in the poem speaks of something "I" experienced. There is no use of the word "you" and all the use of that word might demand of the listener to do or feels something the speaker wants. That is, the poem did not demand that I share any belief or practice of the speaker.
So, I remain hopeful that there will be more sensitivity to the presence of non-Christians in chaplaincy. But there is much work that needs to be done.

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