Caring for those who care for others

January 8, 2021 by Mike Ferguson

About a year ago, Union Theological Seminary in New York City hired the Rev. Bertram Johnson as an interfaith minister. His call is to help students with their discernment process, including three students working as peer chaplains.

“I provide spiritual care for them in a way they will hopefully model for their classmates,” Johnson told the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education of the PC(USA) and the Presbyterian Foundation, during Hinson-Hasty’s twice-monthly Facebook Live event and an accompanying podcast, “Leading Theologically.”

the Rev. Bertram Johnson

“We are not therapists or saviors. We are there just to listen for God’s voice and what they hear God saying to them,” Johnson said. He and the three student chaplains “process situations as they come up, their anxieties and insecurities. It’s been great to see them grow through that and follow their own path, not the one we set for them.”

Much of the work put in by the three student chaplains is “interior work,” Johnson said. “It’s beyond the 45 minutes [each week] you might spend with the person. They’re working in a new city and a new church and they’re figuring out how to be creative and to speak with authority.”

The students tell him they’ve been struck with this thought, he said: “The world I came to serve in seminary doesn’t look like the world we are in right now.” Some students at the seminary have lost family members during the pandemic. “How does that impact their call to ministry, not being able to go home and grieve those loved ones?” Johnson asked. “These are real-life issues where people are seeking God as well as love and support.”

“I’m not in a congregational setting,” said Johnson, who has served churches during his ministry, “but these are things congregational pastors encounter every day.”

Johnson said he’s also consulting with a COVID-19 prevention network, studying how advances can be shared effectively in faith communities. That got him talking about his Clinical Pastoral Education experience as a young seminarian working with and learning from HIV/AIDS patients in an Atlanta hospital.

As a 24-year-old seminarian, “I didn’t know what I had to offer,” Johnson told Hinson-Hasty. “I was younger than they expected. I heard their stories of rejection by family, by community and by their faith community,” where patients often heard this message: “The virus was a sign of God’s judgment.”

“I wasn’t an out man at that point in my life, but I understood what it felt like to be rejected,” Johnson said. “I felt my job at that point was to be an ambassador of God’s love and grace.”

“People were being left to die,” he said. “They had few visitors and lots of shame and condemnation. It helped me to see how being present with someone could offer them God’s grace.”

The Rev. Bertram Johnson will preach during opening worship of the 2021 NEXT Church National Gathering, which is being held online. Opening worship begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Time on March 5. Learn more about the gathering here.