Welcoming the Stranger

How ‘Compassionate Presence’ Helps to Heal People in Distress

For medical patients up against a dire prognosis, inmates locked in isolation, survivors of a natural disaster, college students facing an identity crisis and others in distress, the quiet profession of spiritual caregivers can provide an indispensable lifeline.

This largely unsung field — whose ranks include chaplains, nurses, social workers, physicians and others — have remarkably interesting stories to tell, as we discovered in our recent Humankind public radio project, The Spiritual Care Podcast.

I recall my visit with Paul Shoaf-Kozak, head chaplain at The Essex County Correctional Facility located in the small town of Middleton, Massachusetts, near Boston:

“I see my role as providing a humanizing presence in what is an utterly dehumanizing environment, that we embody a humanizing presence for someone else who finds themselves objectified, just because they’re marked as a criminal, or a felon, and given a sentence.”

As a jailhouse chaplain, Paul is specifically trained in the skills of communicating with people, in this case prisoners, on a basis that is non-sectarian and that also embraces individuals who choose not to affiliate with a religious tradition.

The role is not to moralize or proselytize, which would be deemed a breach of professional ethics. Instead, chaplains simply “accompany” people in a difficult position. They practice the lost art of listening to someone’s heartache. Their mission is to offer kindness and, when appropriate, a word of guidance. Spiritual caregivers provide a sympathetic ear. They sometimes call this “compassionate presence.”

At the Massachusetts jail, Paul’s duties include visits with up to 119 inmates being held in solitary confinement. Normally, he’s barred from entering the prisoner’s cell, a space about 6 x 9 feet, containing a bed, a desk and a toilet, where the inmate spends 23 hours a day: “I stand at the door, and speak to them through the crack in the door, which can be challenging. It’s a small crack, maybe a quarter of an inch. So you have to speak loudly. And there’s an absence of privacy, obviously.”

Which can mean that when inmates discuss their personal anguish with the chaplain, other prisoners may be listening in. Still, under the circumstances, dialogue can be meaningful.

“Even if the person is isolated to their solitary confinement cell, if they encounter someone on the other end of the door who is non-threatening, who is disarming, who gives them permission to be their honest self, in 10 to 15 minutes, you know, we could have a profound conversation.”


For another episode of the podcast, I travelled to Seattle, where I met up with Larry Clum, a social worker who co-founded the Seattle Clubhouse, a psychiatric rehabilitation program that helps clients find meaningful work and relationships. Larry has also worked as an Emergency Room social worker.

Some of the folks he serves are homeless, a population many of us may shy away from because they seem alien. “Foundational to welcoming the stranger,” he told me, “is changing my whole paradigm of how we address human need.”

“In the medical field we think about the fundamental problem being our mortality, and addressing that. Yet maybe the fundamental problem actually is isolation and separation from others in society. We really see that with mental illness. And so when we think of people in those terms, it’s much easier to approach, in the sense, that I’m not here to do something for this person as much as I’m here to be with the person.”

Another Seattle-based caregiver is Rev. Beverly Hartz, a mental health chaplain at the Veterans Administration Puget Sound, where she counsels people who may be deeply depressed or struggling with bipolar disorder or substance abuse and other conditions.

Her colleagues are trained, she said, “not so much on techniques, or skills, but believing that we are the technique. Our presence needs to be so in the now, and profound that we are the toolbox that is meeting the other, and welcoming the other….We’re using our body, our gaze, our tone of voice, but it’s also something that is inside of us, the very core of our essence becomes involved. I can’t leave one part of myself outside the door. I have to bring my whole self into the encounter.”

Many in the field are inspired by Rev. Craig Rennebohm, who founded the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle in 1987 and is considered a pathfinder. His book, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God, highlights the practice of welcoming and walking alongside people who feel estranged.

Today, the Executive Director is Kae Eaton, who works with the unhoused: “The person who is suffering has a sense of being on the outside, being marginalized, and that’s a fearful place to be, because they’re not accepted. They don’t feel that they’re wanted, or they’re accepted. So creating safe space with that in mind, that welcome, asking a person what they’d like to be called. It may be their given name, it may not be. It may be a street name, but it’s the thing that identifies them as a unique person.

“The key is that there’s a mutuality, and a respect for one another, regardless of your circumstance. That common dignity is the great equalizer.

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