Spiritual Interpreter

Not long ago I read on Bishop Alan’s blog, a description of a chaplain as being “someone who learns and listens carefully to the languages people use to express themselves, a spiritual interpreter, someone who can hold the lines and ask key questions of any and all, including themselves.” The role of “spiritual interpreter” resonated with me.

Recent Mennonite Church publications highlighted the 15th Mennonite World Conference assembly that drew nearly 6,000 people from 60 nations to Paraguay in mid-July. As I read through the August 3rd issue of Mennonite Weekly Review my attention was drawn to the article entitled “Translators find the right words.” About 125 interpreters worked in eight languages, translating on stage, in booths, at workshops and meetings. Planning and preparation included careful thinking about the experience, background and vocabulary of each translator and who would fit any particular venue best.

As Anabaptist-Mennonite chaplains many of us work in multilingual, intercultural, and interfaith contexts. Practicing language care is essential in our spiritual caregiving ministry. In their book Spiritual caregiving in the hospital: Windows to chaplaincy ministry, editors Bueckert and Schipani write that, “Spiritual caregiving … is about communicating hope, grace and love in the midst of suffering and loss.” (p. 254)*

How we communicate often requires translation in discerning appropriate religious language for the care-recipient. And sometimes communication is non-verbal.

I remember

  • Hugging and crying with our Italian-speaking resident when her hometown in Italy was destroyed by earthquake;

  • Holding the hand of a dying Alzheimer’s patient who no longer knows who or where he is;

  • Listening empathically to the pained body language of an aphasic stroke resident trying to communicate his loneliness;

  • Joining a family around the deathbed of their Mandarin-speaking mother as they sing and pray in her language;

  • Wiping the tears of a holocaust survivor who weeps for lost children of the gas chambers when the news story of child suicide triggers the painful memory.

Ours is a unique ministry of non-anxious presence that transcends spoken language and is a global love-language to residents, patients, families and staff with whom we work. The prime example of a ministry of presence is the Word that became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). Immanuel. God-with-us.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit empower us as spiritual interpreters.

By Cheryl Paulovich, MCA President

* Bueckert, Leah Dawn and Daniel S. Schipani, editors. Spiritual caregiving in the hospital: Windows to chaplaincy ministry. Pandora Press: 2006.