Yesterday I had the good fortune to be part of a nice example of how long term chaplaincy can create systemic care.
I was going to and fro to the kitchen next door to my office in the hubub of Muslim men, washing and greeting each other and milling around my door opposite the meeting room ready for Friday prayer. As I turned back to my office I was struck by the incongruity of a petit young woman in a short red dress outside my office among all the men. Amil, a Muslim from Malaysia, whom I had got to know over the last two years as he worked on his postgraduate qualifications, was talking with her.
As I approached, Amil introduced me. “Geoff, this is Praneeta, who is a Hindu. She’s from India. She would like to meet some Hindu friends. Where do the Hindus meet?”
We had a quick conversation about the Hindu young people meeting off campus at the temple on Friday nights, but it was noisy so we adjorned to my office. Amil assured her as he passed her into my care, “Geoff is a good bloke. He will look after you.”
She looked quite disorientated. I began to get details for her to contact the Hindu chaplain, when Amil poked his head in the door. “She arrived two days ago.” Turning to Praneeta, “You’re jetlagged, two weeks behind in class and you need some Indian friends.”
I am thinking that although Amil might have been influenced by a very attractive young woman, he is displaying many attributes of good chaplaincy.
He has noticed her distress, befriended her somehow and convinced her to go with him to find me as a possible source of help. He has noticed, made connections, built confidence and pointed to a way forward. Good chaplaincy. And cultural and faith differences have not got in the way.
As we unpack the causes of her distress, it turns out that the core of her problem is not a religious one. She has arrived late for the start of the semester; so apart from the usual problems of jet-lag and cultural shock, she is imediatley anxious about her studies.
We have a joke about getting off the plane and wondering where the people are, the sparse and ordered traffic, the lack of noisy bustle of three-wheelers smoking their way through the narrowest of gaps between overloaded trucks and buses.
She says that in India, you have books and you study what is in them and you sit an exam at the end of the year about what is in the books. But here there is none of that and she doesn’t have any idea of what the people in her class are talking about. This is the main source of her distress. Her presenting need for Indian friends is not about finding the Hindu community as such, but the way she thinks she can get help.
In my mind, I agree with her, but also wonder whether, she will also need the Student Learning Centre, which is set up for this kind of support. But not immediately. I know who has a finger on the pulse of the Indian students. I call Nikhil on his mobile.
I had met Nikhil two years ago when he was employed as a student advocate in Student Assist upstairs from me. He set up the Indian Students Association and we became good friends.
Fortunately Nikhil is on campus and he can be down in 20 minutes.
Praneeta waits outside the centre and I get back to heating up the lunch I bought from the Indonesian women who bring in their little plastic lunch packs for sale to the Islamic community following prayer. I am a bit anxious about losing sight of her in case she disappears. She has already eaten and doesn’t want to kill time with me. Friday Prayer begins. I see her pacing outside as I eat in the foyer. The benches in the Mall are all occupied by Muslim women, waiting for their husbands to finish.
Prayer complete, the men begin to file out of the meeting room. I gobble down the last of the noodles and go outside to see if Praneeta is still around. There is a throng od Muslims gathering. Nikhil arrives, earlier than I expected, and we find her. Introductions are made and we decide to find a seat by the lake. Nikhil asks me whether I mind if they speak in Hindi. Of course I don’t, knowing that the sound of her language will be music to her ears and I am completely confident that Nikhil will have her best interests at heart.
Nikhil has already anticipated and has made contact with a female Indian social work student friend of his who has recently graduated and has agreed to help.
It is a beautiful clear autumn day and the scene by the lake is idyllic. But she will have seen none of this. She is focussed on seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieving her goals and probably wondering why she was crazy enough to have left all the familiar surroundings of home and got herself into this situation. She feels completely alone and helpless, an alien in an impossible situation.
I leave her with Nikhil, comforted by the sound of her own language and his cultural understanding and beginning to see a ray of hope for the future. I will check with Nikhil next week.
I make a note in my head, that we need some female chaplains.