Transcending barriers

By the Rev. Dr. John Wilson

As a member of the Spiritual Care Aviation Incident Response team, I was assigned to a Red Cross Family Service Center at a hotel where families were gathered after a major plane crash.

The majority of the family members of the deceased were arriving from home bases around the world. Some were of the Muslim faith, holding prayer services at designated times in one of the ballrooms near the large gathering space where briefings were held two or three times daily. I was seated outside the briefing room, when a young woman in a hijab — a head covering traditionally worn by Muslim women — entered the hall with her head in her hands. Aware of the agenda of that debriefing, I knew that many family members would take the news hard.

At the same time, a Red Cross volunteer came toward the doorway, carrying a large box of long-stemmed roses. She placed the box just outside the door and continued about her duties. The young Muslim woman looked at the flowers, and then glanced toward me but did not make eye contact. I stood up. She moved toward me and, this time, made eye contact. I could see that she had been weeping bitterly, and, as I acknowledged her grief, she reached out and tugged on my sleeve.

“Can I talk?” she pointed at me. I nodded.

As I started to speak, she said quickly, “My child and my husband.” I nodded again.

“Come, let’s sit down over here,” I said.

We found a corner with a chair and a bench. I bent down on one knee to one side of her chair, taking care neither to crowd her nor face her directly. Jasmine* looked at my clerical garb, looked away and quietly spoke.

“I am Muslim,” she said. “May I talk to you?”

Her English was limited, and she was clearly taking a risk by talking to a man who was not her husband.

I looked around, wanting to shout, “Somebody help me here. Is this going to be okay?” The Clinical Pastoral Education answer came: “Be present.

“Yes,” I responded. “How may I help?”

She began to speak about her last moments with her husband and their young daughter. Her daughter had not wanted to board the airplane. She told me that her daughter had said, “I do not want to go. The plane will crash.”

“I kissed her many times,” she said. “Then goodbye.”

She paused for a long moment, both of us in silence.

“I am Muslim,” she said again. “My faith tells me I must surrender to the will of Allah. That I have done. Will you help me with my grief?”

Awestruck by her openness and request for help, I took a deep breath.

“Tell me about your daughter and your husband,” I said.

She pulled from her bag photographs of her daughter and husband boarding the plane. As the photos passed between us, my words were few, and tears welled in our eyes. She told me about her husband’s wish to take their daughter to visit family. She told me about the fun things her daughter enjoyed. She shared her regrets about putting her daughter on the plane.

I prayed silently for a way to say that Allah and the One I call God are the same Creator who loves all children, women and men. I knew there was no way to speak of that in this meeting. Nor was there a need. I stood and walked over to the box of roses, selected two and offered them to her. She took them from my hand and held them to her heart.

She again made eye contact.

“Thank you for helping me with my pain,” she said. “I must go now.”

She began to cross the hall but turned back. To my great surprise, she returned, put her arms around my shoulders and hugged me. Just as quickly, she turned away and reentered the briefing room.

I sat for several minutes, thinking about the amazing gift she had given to me. I had sat with her while she told pieces of her story to a stranger. Did I do everything right, according to my training? I don’t know. I do know that I learned a great deal in those few special moments with another human being who was grieving. I learned again that listening is the greatest act of acceptance and that grace that can be given to another. I saw demonstrated the spiritual teaching about “rules” that sometimes must be broken for healing to take place.

Our meeting transcended barriers of culture, language, gender, politics and religion. Her deep spiritual suffering was addressed as she told her own story in a safe space free of judgment. She felt strengthened by the telling because she was her own authority on her experience. The rose, a universal symbol of beauty and life, mediated a delicate situation between two strangers and created a simple ritual of connectedness and healing.

Effective leadership encompasses listening to and understanding a person’s basic human needs as it relates to who they see themselves as, as individuals, their families, including racial and ethnic background; the society in which they live and work; and their God. Jasmine was beginning a process of understanding herself and her life without her immediate family of husband and child. Her identity as Muslim and American was reflected in her conversation, and she claimed her societal place in the United States. Her relationship to her God was strong, and she was able to identify the immediate spiritual need of addressing her own deep, psychic pain.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.

A retired American Baptist Churches USA-endorsed chaplain, John Wilson, D.D., recently received the Retired Chaplain Award from the Association of Professional Chaplains as well as the James B. Ashbrook Award in Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology Award from American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. A pioneer in disaster spiritual care and a founding member of the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care team, Wilson served with the Red Cross in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and other national disasters.