When I was training in a hospital as part of a cohort of chaplains, we were each assigned units and it was expected that we would visit, or at least attempt to visit, each of the patients in each unit. Some of us had systems we followed: leave the NICU ward for last because you get to pray with babies, walk through the ER before finishing your day, pray for guidance to know what room to enter, do the left then the right, or go systematically room by room. I was usually the latter.
Visiting people who are sick enough to be in the hospital means that we are seeing them at what might be one of the worst moments of their life. They are often scared, they are often in pain, some are facing mortality, some are facing long recoveries, some are facing the frustration of being back again for an illness that isn’t healing, some are coming here to die surrounded by family, and some are alone and unnamed.
As spiritual caregivers, we prepare for this. We prepare for heartbreak. We prepare to face rejection. We prepare to face hostility and even anger. There was the sister whose sibling was moved out of intensive care earlier that afternoon and supposed to be on his way to recovering when he suddenly stopped breathing. No amount of medical intervention could bring him back. Her 3 a.m. screams pierced the unit.
The look she gave me was pure hatred; I was representing the God that, in her mind, took away her last living family member when she finally went home to shower after keeping vigil all day. When she yelled, “Fuck you!” I thought she had a good point. I shielded the nurses and medical staff standing in for the God that failed her. It was holy work. It was not about me.
What we didn’t prepare for was the racism we would encounter in patient rooms.
One of my colleagues is a black man, and I still remember the first time he got kicked out of a patient’s room for being black. He came back to our shared office space looking a little ruffled. He shared what happened with a wry smile. He laughed it off, but we both knew it hurt.
I didn’t encounter racial slurs. The racism I encountered was subtle if no less pernicious. It was the assumption that, as a Latina, I was there to empty bedpans, deliver food, or clean up a mess. I would explain that I was from the spiritual care department so I wasn’t able to help them with that, but I could pray with them or just chat.
I was summarily dismissed.
Then there were the male patients who wanted to talk about how they had a “Spanish” girlfriend in their youth and how “Spanish” girls were so hot. Because as a Latina, those are the two tropes available to us: cleaning or being sexy.
My well-dressed, handsome, white male colleague with the winsome smile would get mistaken for a doctor. Me? I was the help.
So, what do you do with that? When you have help to offer, you see someone that clearly needs it, but their own prejudice keeps them from seeing you as a source of support or spiritual care—how do you keep going from room to room remembering, “This is not about me”? Remembering that the 90-year-old person who only knew people of color as servants is going home to glory soon and you are not going to change their mind. Remembering that it is not about you, it is not about you, it is not about you.
It is not about your mother with the thick accent and the rich brown skin. It is not about your great-grandmother with a second grade education who could still keep the books and know if a single cent went missing. It is not about my ancestors, running to the mountains to escape from Spanish forces who would enslave them, surviving by becoming inaccessible. It is not about my people surviving colonialism and the message from the white conquerors in their strange-sounding English that somehow we needed rescuing from our savagery, that somehow we needed them to teach us that we were ignorant and lazy and hypersexual.
It is not about my years of hustling, trying to get a job, turned away with a suggestion that I try taking care of children or cleaning houses.
It is not about that.
But it is.
It always is.
It is about the segregation within hospital staff that reinforced divisions along lines of race and class. I cried and hugged the nurses aids when my training was done because they had been the friendliest people there—the ones to let me know when a patient was delusional, the ones to call me over when a family was in distress, or when a patient didn’t speak English and was scared. They were the ones to tell me about their families and ask for prayers, which I gladly prayed. They were the ones to share snacks with me and laugh.
But there were divisions all around me.
The nurses were also very kind but they were not Latinx. We shared important moments, but I would soon be replaced by a new trainee and they didn’t have time to bond with me. The doctors didn’t usually acknowledge me. When they did, I took note. They were usually the doctors with a gentle bedside manner who made eye contact with the patient, who asked questions and even listened to the answers.
I expected that illness would be the great equalizer. After all, we all face our own fragility when we are ill. We all have to deal with our bodies and realize they won’t last forever.
But some people will go to their graves holding prejudice and division tight; they will die with racism held close and they won’t want a blessing from a brown minister.
It is about me.
Thea Racelis is a Latina Queer Theologian and Pastor; educator, dreamer, and activist. Thea is committed to ministry from/with the margins and at the intersections.