12. A Chaplaincy Story

Aren’t you preaching to the choir? Do you think anyone but a hard-core progressive will really join this “revolution”?

Klein suggests that for the revolution against climate change to occur, liberals must be firm in their egalitarian and communitarian values rather than watering them down in order to appease cultural conservatives who will never join our movement (59). It is a sad fact that while some cunning reframings can work — the anti-littering movement only took off in Texas when its proponents found a phrase, “Don’t Mess with Texas,” that appealed to Texans’ machismo and pride — other such appeals to patriotism, to our nature-loving side, and so on have historically failed to win over moderates; “conservative opposition to climate activism only hardened” in the period when U.S. green groups tried to frame the ecological struggle in Republican terms (58). Better, she says, to win over like-minded people who haven’t yet been inspired to bring their gifts to the street. 

I can understand this line of reasoning, even as my inveterate humanist convictions lead me to believe that change is possible and that dialogue can open minds. Not only have I experienced this, personally; I have seen it happen in others.

Because nothing I write would feel complete without an anecdote from my chaplaincy work: I visit an elderly patient who has been grieving the loss of his wife. A farmer for much of his life and a traditional Mennonite, his grief is compounded by his growing sense that he has lost his place in the world, which has modernized and liberalized all around him. In every visit, he laments or, at times, curses the smallest, slightest changes in society, glorifying the past instead. 

We’ve gotten to know each other over time, and he’s come to like and respect me. We got to the point where we were able to name his criticisms not as ahistorical social pronouncements but as reactions to tremendous grief and loss. At some point, I asked him if he thought that everything about the young generation is bad; I told him there are associations of young farmers who, while socially more liberal than his ancestors, are trying to return us to the land… that there is a growing social longing for such practices. He was deeply interested to hear this. 

And then I asked him whether he thought that everything about his own generation was good. At this, an anguished look crossed his face. I leaned in close as he stammered: “Nicholas…  I have to admit something that’s very painful to say. When I have a home aide who comes in, and she’s black…. well…. I have a really hard time with that.” I am not often shocked, but this surprised me: not that it was true, but that he had admitted it. I’ve heard many patients in the rural areas where I work admit explicitly, and without any guilt, that they are racist; but this kind of open-hearted confession of a person’s racism was new to me. We talked for a while and when we ended with a prayer (as he and I always do), I found myself, for the first time in my career as a chaplain, praying with a conservative older white man for a healing of the wounds of systemic racism. 

Yes, I do believe (and I have seen) that people can scrutinize themselves — can conduct an inner reckoning — can read the signs of the times around them — and can change. And I do believe that an agenda that sounds like it belongs to liberals and to the young can touch so many others too: a farmer longing for a return to the earth; the same farmer, becoming aware of his internalized racism. 

Marx once said that each of us asks only those questions which we already know how to answer. This shores us up with a sense of our own superiority and self-sufficiency; it also keeps us stuck in our biases. In our pursuit of the truth (which may turn out to be inconvenient), each of us — and I include myself in this number — must ask: What are the questions that I have conveniently shrugged aside because I do not have the answers for them or fear that I might be wrong? Where might my mind open courageously to newness — my heart, compassionately to otherness?

Read on for more.