In my Immigrants’ Story, I related my journey toward a career as a hospital chaplain providing multi-faith and multi-spiritual counseling to diverse people in Scarborough, Ontario. The contributions of Coptic theologians to Christian theology have helped to inform my chaplaincy; particularly my understanding of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Coptic Christians uphold that both God and man have roles in human salvation: God, through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection; man, through good works, which are the fruits of the faith. To paraphrase St. Athanasius, fourth century bishop of Alexandria, Christ became human so humanity can become God.[1] This essential point marks how all humans can be united in endeavoring for unity and prosperity.[2] My understanding of this contribution by St. Athanasius to Christian theology is vital to my own growth and continues to inform my holistic approach as a chaplain.

Many have asked me: how can you converse with people who are not Christians or who do not identify with any faith tradition. I simply respond: I see the human first and foremost. I work with a diverse population in the hospital: people who are in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), those who have recently had surgeries, long term care patients, or people with mental disorders. For example, about three months ago a volunteer ran into my office short of breath and told me that someone was outside crying and needed help. I approached the individual and he confided in me that he was going to kill himself. I spoke with him and asked him to share his story with me. After talking for three hours, I was able to create a relationship of trust and he came back to my office and we had lunch. Once he felt safe, he finally suggested that he would be willing to go to the emergency department and he was admitted to the hospital. Two weeks later, he was discharged and related to me that our conversations motivated him to get back to his passion.

He enjoyed writing poetry. Before he left the hospital, he wrote two poems for me. I was brought to tears by his words. Even though he did not identify with any religious affiliation, I realized then that St. Athanasius’ vision resonates powerfully toward endeavoring for unity in our common goal: to love and be loved by all.

As Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian Henri Nouwen once said:

The Christian leader, minister or priest, is not one who reveals God to the people – who gives something to those who have nothing – but one who helps those who are searching to discover reality as the source of their existence. In this sense we can say that the Christian leader leads humans to confession, in the classic sense of the word: to the basic affirmation that humans are human and God is God, and that without God, humans cannot be called human.[3]

The Wounded Healer, Henri NouwenEveryone is broken. Only by recognizing and accepting that may we begin healing. When the chaplain, or any medical care provider, begins to understand their own brokenness and see that it can be used as a way to heal others, then everyone may be restored in the image and likeness God intended. We must look at a person and see beauty in them. If we cannot see beauty, then we cannot contribute anything to people. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong; what is ugly; and what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met: the prostitute, the thief, and saw their hidden beauty. Perhaps it is distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less. Christ called out that beauty.

This approach matters. First, staff feel directly and indirectly supported by the presence of a chaplain on the unit, helping to reduce compassion fatigue. Second, spiritual care enhances patient connection with community support. Studies have shown that spiritual well-being is linked to overall quality of life.[4] Third, spiritual care can support increased health and shorten recovery periods. Religion and spirituality of any kind are often cited as major sources of support and coping. Finally, many patients want to receive spiritual care and support; from simply a compassionate ear,  to someone providing a prayer of support, to writing a referral to a community resource – such as clergy to take confessions or give communion. These are just a few of the many reasons that chaplains are needed in the medical system; for the care of the patients, family members, and hospital staff.

Holding Christ's Hand

I have worked as a chaplain for three years. When I started, I asked: how can I treat, or cure, or change a person? Now I would phrase the question: how can I provide a relationship that this person may use for his/her own personal growth? Such an approach can serve everyone who is in any walk of life. No matter where you find yourself, you too can be a light in the world. Coptic contributions to Christian theology provide an untapped resource with the potential to unpack pain, suffering, loneliness, and depression. To be human is to be active and to be active is to throw ourselves into everyone’s life. Yet, let us not put our sights too high; we do not have to be saviors of the world. We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.

[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), ch.53.

[2] I recommend two books that expand on this paradigm: John Behr, The Mystery of Christ, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006) and Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). Part of my Seminary curriculum, these books helped form my understanding of who Christ is and what it means to live a Christ-like life.

[3] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, (New York, Image Books Publication, 1979), 43.

[4] Refer to: Harold Koenig, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: A Review and Update,” Advances in Mind-Body Medicine. 29(3): 19-26 and Sanuel Weber and Kenneth Pargament, “The Role of Religion and Spirituality in Mental Health,” Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 27(5):358-363.

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Bavly Kost is a chaplain at Sunnybrook Hospital, dedicated to providing inclusive spiritual care support to all individuals. He holds a Masters in Theology from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and he is currently completing a Masters in Spiritual Care and Psychotherapy at the University of Toronto.

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