A Latino/a View of Suffering
Recently I have started reading Pastoral Care and Counseling with Latino/as by Montilla and Medina. One of the chapters in the book, “A Latino/a View of Suffering and Illness”, has really stuck out to me.
I don’t think I had ever considered that the way I experienced and viewed suffering in my life was influenced by my culture. I knew that often times I felt different from the majority of believers I was around, but I never thought it might be connected to having been raised in a Hispanic family.
The authors of this book state that because of the high value of connectedness and community in the Latino culture, suffering is communal as well. There is an element of wanting people to come alongside them in their pain and finding comfort in the presence of others.
So, what are ways to minister to Latinos when they are experiencing trial and grief? The authors give several great principles:
Watch our own reactions to their grief. Montilla and Medina give two very common examples of this. One is how when we as ministers are faced with a Latino (or any person of any ethnicity) that is experiencing grief, the natural instinct is to want to “rush in and help”. What the authors challenge us to do is to reflect on why it is we feel the need to alleviate the other person’s grief. Often times the motivating factor isn’t to actually help the hurting one, but to calm our own anxiety. It causes dissonance in us to see someone else hurting, and the need to smother the grieving with cheerful and trite phrases is actually a reflection of our own inability to deal with pain in others. We often aren’t okay with simply allowing a person to walk through what is a very natural response to crisis or suffering. The challenge then is to resist this very natural instinct in us so that we can love well.
The second example is the way we react when we hear a person who is suffering express doubt or frustration with God. It can feel like a personal attack of our own faith so we come to God’s rescue and list off all that we know is true of him even if the grieving one can’t embrace it. Again, I think this is related to our desire to alleviate anxiety in ourselves. The best thing we can do in that moment is be a good a steward of your own emotions and not give in to the impulse to jump in and stick up for God. He doesn’t need us to defend him. Also, a person who is wrestling through deep theological questions about the Lord isn’t necessarily sinning. In fact, it might end up deepening their convictions as they journey through their own grieving process.
Be present and listen. The authors weave this principle with the story of Job saying that Job’s friends initially got it right when they were silent and present with him in the first part of the book. It doesn’t mean we need to be emotionally distraught or in agony with the person, but it does mean we have the ability to comfort by just being there and being willing to listen to their anguish. For a Latino who values connection in community, there is healing in someone being near when they are hurting.
Empower the one suffering. A last principle has to do with the kind of authority we are given as mentors/counselors when the grieving person invites us into their experience. We can use that power for harm or for good. Because Latino culture can be fatalistic and deterministic at times, some Latinos may view suffering as something they are supposed to accept as God’s will. This can be a good thing, but it usually just means they aren’t able to move through grief well. They will refuse to express what they are really feeling as if asserting their true emotions would be denying that God is sovereign. As someone who has built trust and has authority in their lives, we can actually empower them to give voice to their hurt and pain recognizing that in doing so we are allowing the person to “own their suffering and face it with conviction”. The authors point out that being okay with the language of lament and grief is important too so that we don’t try to silence their voice in order to deal with the emotions it surfaces in us.
I’m not doing this chapter justice, but those are some of the highlights for me. The whole of the chapter is much richer, and it has reminded me that who I am as a Latina in Christ has unique expression even in the way I experience and show grief. This chapter made me feel like there may be room for me and for many others like me within the community of faith.
So what about you? What are ways you see your own cultural lenses influencing the way you experience suffering? What best ministers to you when you are hurting?
I pray we will all become better ministers of God’s comfort as we cross cultures.
photo courtesy: loleia