Down With Labels

It doesn’t matter what kind of chaplain he is

By Norris Burkes
September 2022

Most days at my hospice office, I start by calling patients to arrange home visits.

Today I set an afternoon appointment with a woman in her mid-60s who’s been given less than six months to live.
She greets me at the front door with a question.

“Are you a Christian chaplain?” she asks, leaning into the word “Christian.”

I’m not much of a grammarian, but I think she’s using the word “Christian” as a qualifier. Please don’t get all bleary eyed over the idea of grammar. This remains a spiritual column.

But you should know a qualifier is a type of word that adds or subtracts meaning to another word. In this case, the woman announced what kind of chaplain she wants me to be. Or perhaps doesn’t want me to be.

Before I tell you my response, you need to hear what I’m thinking. It seems likely the woman hails from one of two spiritual camps.

If she’s from Camp No. 1, she’s a firebrand Christian who wants to see my credentials. The question is her litmus test to allow or deny my entry.

However, if she’s from Camp No. 2, she hopes I’m not a Christian at all. She may well have been wounded by the folks from Camp No. 1, people who tried to cram their brand of faith down her throat.

Neither camp appeals to me, so I throw out an answer.

“I’m just a chaplain who also happens to be a Christian.”

My response is designed to impart some not-so-subtle education. Whatever camp she’s in, she needs to know chaplains come from all faiths. We shouldn’t be disqualified just because we don’t match her qualifications.

Hence the problem with qualifiers. They are used to disqualify people from their personhood. They don’t let us see the person God made. They qualify people as smart, fat, thin, pretty, homely, etc. They disqualify people.

For a moment, I think about telling her Harvard has a humanist chaplain, Chris Stedman, who calls himself a “Faitheist.” But I think better of that. First, do no harm, right?

I don’t tell her any of that, but instead point to the label on my ID. “Actually, my hospice group prefers I use the title “spiritual counselor.”

She returns a hard look that suggests she’s not pleased.

Honestly, I don’t love the designation. I go with it because I’ve come to realize “chaplain” carries too much baggage. The title brings a lot of assumptions into both camps. One group supposes I’m there to convert them. The other assumes I belong to their exclusive theology club.

Most of all, whatever camp the hospice patient hails from, I hope we can speak without qualifiers. She’s not just a hospice patient. She’s a person, and I hope to find the best way to affirm her.

I need to help her drop the qualifying emphasis on my title. I don’t need to be a chaplain, counselor or even a Christian. I only need to be the person who’s unafraid to come alongside her pain.

Finally, I say, “How about if I’m just Norris today?”

Her face softens. She nods and reciprocates with her first name.

She invites me inside.

We sit and chat for 45 minutes. We pray. We cry. We trade a few awkward laughs.

She’s a person. I’m a person. We both celebrate being God’s creation and fully qualified to share his love.

I never do figure out what camp she’s in. Perhaps I’m not qualified to make that call. Perhaps no one is.

Norris Burkes can be reached at Previous columns can be found and shared at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit

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