Earlier in the year I was contacted by the Civil Chaplains Association Committee asking if I would conduct an introductory program in pastoral care for the Muslim Association in Riverwood.  They had 10 women and 3 men wishing to be trained so that they could become pastoral visitors to their communities in hospitals and aged care facilities. Today, all pastoral visitors need to complete a 40 hr program in pastoral care to receive accreditation to visit.  I approached the Broken Bay Institute who were willing to accredit the program that we would devise and conduct for this community.Rev. Mary Pearson a very competent supervisor and pastoral educator, who works with me on occasions was willing to mount the program for this community as at the time I had running a 283 hr program in pastoral practice. Below is Mary’s reflection on the experience.

Reflections on an Introductory Course in Pastoral Care for Muslims

“Pastoral Care” is a useful term for those of us who come from a Christian background. It has become shorthand for a concept that covers many different aspects and requires particular skills if it is to be offered in ways that do indeed offer caring. For those who come from a different faith tradition and from a non-Western background, there is no immediately comparable term. So for the 13 people who signed up for an introductory course in pastoral care, there was clearly a sense of not-knowing what they were going to be involved in, even though they had been given a brief outline. They came because they knew they needed this if they were to be authorized to visit people in hospitals, aged care facilities etc.

It doesn’t matter that you may have been told that this was about encouraging personal reflection more than, or as least as much as being given factual input. They were used to being taught in a lecturing format. So, the first day, I arrived to find a partition down the room screening off the 3 men from the 10 women. This is the way their customary way. In another situation I might have said that this would not work so well for the purposes of the group and had to make an on-the-spot decision about whether to do this. Since we were all finding our way together, I left it. So, I could see both the men and the women and they could hear each other behind the screen. They had also assumed that I would stand behind a lectern and use a microphone. I did not do either of those things. I did have to keep reminding myself to look at both groups. Making eye contact with the women was easier than with the men.

So on that first day, having begun to explain what pastoral care was, and established that in the Koran there are references to God being like a shepherd, we began by telling stories about our grandmothers, at first in twos and threes and then in the whole group. This was like a long ice-breaker. My assumptions were immediately challenged as it was one of the men who spoke very personally about his story. Indeed, throughout the course, two of the men were as ready as many of the women to share things from their own experience. The third young man already had the title of “sheikh”, being engaged in study as the focus for his life. It felt like a breakthrough when after two weeks he made eye contact and then smiled and later even laughed. When I arrived to take the class on the second day, the partition had been removed and the men sat at their table in the same space as the women.

For many of these people I was probably the first Christian with whom they had engaged in depth. An important part of the experience was breaking down barriers and discovering a great deal of commonality. That said, it also became clear as we went along and became involved in learning about such basic topics as listening skills, that some of what was being suggested to them actually challenged cultural behaviours. Arabs, they told me, are used to going into situations where they might be visiting someone they didn’t know and asking a lot of questions. This is what was expected. The idea of a visit not primarily being about such an exchange of information but about listening in order to hear what was going on, to understand a person’s struggles and, indeed, what they might not be saying, was a very big thing. It was a big thing because they realised that it made sense, that it was right. Role plays revealed how hard it was for them to know what to do if they were not just asking questions. In many of the role plays I ended up modelling a different way for them, seeking to identify what feelings a person might be experiencing. This process was greatly helped by one of the women on whose initiative the course had been set up. She had lost a child who had been ill for many months in the Children’s Hospital before he died. She knew, from her own experience what was helpful and what was not.

From this ongoing learning everything else stemmed. It was clear from all the verbatims they wrote and from their conversations that their faith informs everything they do. They have an immensely strong feeling of sisterhood and brotherhood, not least because of the difficulties for them as Muslims in the communities in which they live. They go out of their way to offer caring and support to friends, neighbours and strangers in ways that are very different from our Christian or secular society. They had to become comfortable with understanding that resorting too quickly to statements of faith that Allah would act was not always enough. Some wanted to give advice more than to listen. But they were all very keen to learn, to open up about what they struggled with and what they found transformative.

A day spent visiting a Children’s Hospital and a General Hospital, being guided by the chaplains, including the Muslim chaplain, made them appreciate what these chaplains do and also how much need there is for Muslim pastoral care volunteers. It confirmed for them what they had been learning in the classes and gave a context to what was still to come. That included sessions on loss and grief which again revealed different cultural perspectives and also opened up personal stories.

Another discussion of great significance arose from a reading they had done for homework about fear. As it happened, this was in the week of the Paris terrorist attacks. Many of them began to tell stories about what it was like for them at that present time, and what it had long been like. It seems that, for many of them confronting their fear, learning the acronym in which FEAR means Face it, Explore it, Accept it and Respond to it, was a very important tool for many areas of their life and in looking to the future going into hospitals as pastoral carers. It also informed a later discussion about boundaries and looking after themselves in ways that had particular application.

They were very positive about so much that was transformative learning. Many said the experience was life changing. Tears were shed and shared along the way. There was much laughter and teasing by everyone, including me, and between men and women. They know that this was just a beginning and it is heartening that many want to go on and continue what they have started. It clarified what worked and what didn’t work so well; what could be expanded and what needed more time. It emphasized the importance of building trusting and respectful relations, not making assumptions – (even if one thought one was not) – and being prepared to be flexible.

This was a group that asked many questions and would persist until they had understood and, as such, was a joy to teach and to share with on a journey of mutual learning.

Messages to: Eveline Crotty rsm  

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