Culturally Competent Spiritual Care

What is culturally competent spiritual care and what does it have to offer?

As spiritual care providers, we are trained to offer support to people from all backgrounds,
with an open, non-judgmental, and peaceful presence. We try to help others connect to their
own sources of strength when they are confronted with challenging circumstances. We serve
people with diverse experiences of gender, race, sexuality, (dis)ability, class, migration,
language, war, and colonization. This service gives us the opportunity to witness how
everyone is impacted by systemic violence, though the impact varies greatly. For instance,
while working as a hospital chaplain in a border town, I learned that many indigenous women
and women of color had trouble accessing culturally appropriate healthcare. Such difficulties
often led to poorer healing outcomes for the women and compromised wellbeing for their
families. My training as a spiritual care provider did not magically heal me of ancestral,
historical, or collective trauma and it didn’t erase my conditioned responses to difference. But
it did teach me to examine my social conditioning so that I could begin to heal from unjust

Culturally competent spiritual care comes from an awareness of the interdependence of
planetary, communal, and personal health. This awareness is especially needed today. As
forests burn and valleys flood, as we experience a global pandemic amid energy and climate
instability, it has become clear that the most vulnerable among us are most grievously
affected by our quickly changing conditions. For example, the ripple effects of an economy in
quarantine resulted in loss of employment and homes for many. But shelter in place orders
left those without shelter doubly vulnerable to contagion and punitive policing. When
wildfires destroyed entire communities, loss of shelter and forced migration for some
exacerbated the pandemic’s voracity for all of us.

As first responders to those in need of healing, health service organizations are on the
frontlines of these various challenges. We need care providers who understand how we are all
impacted by systemic violence. Culturally competent spiritual care offers an important form
of support to frontline organizations. When spiritual care providers bring an awareness of
how experiences of gender, race, sexuality, (dis)ability, class, migration, language, war, and
colonization influence a person’s health and healing, we can better support people in the
fullness of their lived experience.

Cultural competency also includes an understanding of the ways that these categories have
been used, and continue to be used, to exploit all of us for the material benefit of a few.
Without this understanding we risk unwittingly requiring people to silence their experiences
of systemic violence, because we can only hear truths, which we are able to bear. For
example, by exploring my ancestors’ relationship to colonization, I could better comprehend
how anti-indigenous racism limited my family and me. This comprehension helps me
accompany others who struggle with racism, neocolonial violence and deportation with more
awareness and compassion.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote, “We are capable of bearing a great burden,
once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” People trained in
culturally competent spiritual care offer others the opportunity to share their full selves, as
whole human beings. This is a great gift in such challenging times. As we heal from our own
unjust socialization, as we become more aware of how oppressive power relations harm
everyone, we can participate in the collective healing that our society so desperately needs.

Contribution by Teresa Castro

Teresa comes from the unceded land of the Yokuts and Miwok. She has training in hospital
chaplaincy and land-based social work. In her graduate studies she had the privilege of
working with front-line communities, where she learned about the power of community centered responses to systemic violence. She experiences personal, political, and planetary healing as interdependent and believes in the liberatory potential of culturally competent
spiritual care. Teresa understands that all people possess the wisdom they need to navigate
life’s challenges; she feels grateful to listen supportively when this wisdom seems elusive.