Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling

Spiritual Care Week 2021: Leaning on Active Listening

By Chris Towles

Chris Towles

Out of the blue a young Muslim wanted to know if we could meet.

I had been the faculty advisor for the Interfaith Council, an associate chaplain at Wake Forest University, and I had started working with Baptist students. I had worked with students of different faiths (or no faith) having deep conversations and doing programming, but I wondered how I might provide pastoral care across faith traditions. 

Leaning on active listening turned out to be just what was needed, as she wanted someone who would listen without condemning her questions. She felt that another Muslim or an imam might just tell her to pray more and read the Quran more.

This encounter reminded me of my time in college needing someone who could listen to my wonderings and questions without condemnation. I drove an hour to meet a minister friend halfway at a greasy little chicken restaurant with offensively orange benches. I don’t remember everything that he said, but what meant the most to me about that conversation was that he listened. That encounter helped form my understanding of ministry. 

Seven years ago I started hosting a Muslim/Baptist cookout at my home. A few alumni admitted appreciatively that this event was the first time they’d ever met a Muslim.

At this gathering, people don’t have to talk about religion. I do have a sheet with prompts if people want to use them, such as: “What is a significant memory of a holiday from your religious background that you participated in? Is anyone in your family practicing a different religion than you? How does your family handle differences?” Questions such as these don’t require explaining one’s religion or even knowing much about one’s religion.

Listening to people describe themselves challenges assumptions we may have or hear from others, and it is not uncommon for people to make dismissive assumptions about Muslims or Baptists.

I have sometimes asked students what it would look like to listen to people as a type of ministry. What if we listen to the Muslim student, instead of telling others about what we saw on a website link our uncle sent to us? What would it be like to listen to a gay student talk about the pain of rejection and just hold on to that for a moment?

When someone shares a deeply important part of their life, instead of telling them that you disagree, or explaining why you think they are wrong, what would it be like to listen to why it is important to them? What kind of gift is it to listen?

The books I appreciate most about multifaith chaplaincy are the Faith in the Neighborhood series by Lucinda Mosher, in which she interviews people about their experience of belonging, prayer, and loss. More than the usual facts about religious traditions covered in a world religions course, these books flesh out what people’s faith means to them.

When someone shares the deepest, vulnerable aspects of their lives, what kind of gift is it to be allowed to listen?

Dr. Christopher Towles creates environments where people can wonder, question, and grow at Wake Forest University as a CBF-Endorsed Chaplain. Additionally, he teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the WFU Divinity School and Forsyth Tech. Chris also serves on the CBF Council on Endorsement.

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