Grid of images of 6 people representing Chaplains of Color
By Aja Antoine

This January, The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab (CIL) launched Conversation Circles for Chaplains of Color as part of our work with the Fetzer Institute to support and build networks for spiritual care providers. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning, and the legacies of racial violence, we decided that our first circles would honor and support the work that chaplains of color do to provide spiritual care for individuals and challenge racial structures. 

What has this looked like? Through April we hosted ten conversation circles, each with up to ten participants on Zoom, each co-facilitated by pairs of chaplains of color. In our survey of registrants, we learned that seventy-three percent of the more than 200 chaplains who registered identify as Black or African American, so in addition to circles for chaplains of color, we consistently offered circles for those with common racial and ethnic identities. The first affinity circles were created for African American/Black facilitators and participants, and we have recently launched new affinity groups for Asian American and Pacific Islanders and for Queer chaplains of color. We are delighted to welcome new facilitators to our team of co-leaders for these two groups including the Rev. Dr. Danielle Buhuro (CPE Supervisor, Advocate Aurora), Rev. Alice Cabotaje (Director of Spiritual Care and Education, Massachusetts General Hospital), Rev. Alicia Roxanne Forde (Director of International Office, Unitarian Universalist Association) and Javier Maldonado (Chaplain, Christus Hospice Central Texas).

Chaplains who participated shared what was most helpful about the program:

To know I am not alone in my experiences. Though we each of us had our own experiences, yet there was a common thread throughout each person sharing that was familiar. I am reminded of the African proverb, "if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." These conversation circles are necessary and vital for Chaplains of Color to have longevity in the work.

What was most helpful about the conversation circle experience is the confirmation that racial disparities, exclusion, and inequities for African American chaplains is similar, and sadly, nationwide.

To hear others’ stories, affirming my experience and emotions are real, having a space with peers who look like me, feeling no judgement, and feeling safe while being vulnerable. I left feeling encouraged, yet I did not want our time to end.

Being able to name the challenges that are experienced as POC in our Chaplain spaces safely and without judgment or potential loss of job.

Overall, the space to feel heard and seen and cared for in a world that so frequently silences, overlooks, or ignores you ---or takes you for granted as a pastoral caretaker and criticizes you as a leader.

We've needed this space for a long time.

Participants enjoyed cultivating community in these spaces. They felt the groups offered accompaniment by creating space for connection, reflection, collaboration, and perspective-taking, along with sharing and centralizing resources.

The most consistent feedback we heard was that two sessions were not enough. In response, we started hosting new extended groups (now with four sessions) beginning in April through June that allow for longer-term connections between participants. We are now looking for registrants to fill our final conversation circle that will be held Thursdays from noon to 1:30 p.m. EST on May13, May 27, June 10, and June 17. To register for the group, click here

These Conversation Circles are one of three interrelated CIL initiatives to name, honor, and support chaplains of color. The second initiative is an interview- and archival-based research project, “Race, Ethnicity and the Work of Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care” with Dr. Barbara D. Savage. The project is exploring and synthesizing the work of African American chaplains over time, articulating challenges and opportunities from the past to the present. To date, we have conducted 22 interviews with Black chaplains working in the military, higher education, corrections and community settings in the United States. Our research team is also conducting historical analysis of newspaper archives from the twentieth century to the present to situate and ground our discussion. This work will form the basis for further support and action.

Our third initiative will take the form of a free online conference focusing on the expertise, compassion, and care chaplains of color bring to their work; their experiences as people of color in this work; and opportunities for everyone to unite in action around disparities in access to spiritual care. We have seeded this work with a list of existing resources for chaplains of color and our commitment to expand them. Lab staff are thrilled to collaborate with Rev. Marilyn J. D. Barnes, Rev. Kirstin C. Boswell Ford, and Dr. Asha Shipman in this effort.

To learn more about the work of chaplaincy in today’s world, I invite you to check out CIL’s series THIS Is What a Chaplain Looks Like.

Aja Antoine is a research associate at the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. She is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and spends her free time reading novels and would love to write one someday.

Aja serves with the following advisors to the Spiritual Care Providers Network project.

Rev. Marilyn J.D. Barnes, MS, MA, MPH, BCC, is a vice president of mission and spiritual care in the Advocate Aurora Healthcare System and is an associate minister at Cathedral of Grace St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Aurora, Illinois. Rev. Marilyn as she is affectionately called, believes in journeying with others as companion, guide, and friend.

Rev. Kirstin C. Boswell Ford, M.Div, is the associate dean of Student Support Services at Brown University. She holds a Master of Divinity from The University of Chicago Divinity School where she is also completing her PhD. Her writing focuses on womanist theology and analyzing the call narratives of African American clergywomen.

Wendy Cadge, PhD, is the Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and professor of sociology at Brandeis University. She is also the founder and director of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and camping with her family in New England.

Barbara D. Savage, PhD, is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought in the Department of Africana Studies of the University of Pennsylvania. In her free time, she enjoys many kinds of music and aggressive gardening.

Asha Shipman, PhD, is the Director of Hindu Life and Hindu Chaplain for Yale University. She is the Chair of the newly formed North American Hindu Chaplains Association. In her free time, she enjoys playing Scrabble & piecing together jigsaw puzzles with her kids, growing exuberant patio plants, birdwatching, and, for now, off-setting her chocolate chip cookie intak


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The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab sparks practical innovation in spiritual care.