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Religion and Death in Denver

The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) has a handy website at which you can check out a city's population breakdown into all sorts of religious beliefs/practices.  This organization is one of the newest and most creative statistical researchers into modern religion in the US and nationally (there are categories like "belief in angels" and "has respondent had 'born again' experience?").  It is based out of Penn State.  Check it out!

In 2000, 356 religious congregations appeared on their Denver census.  356!  It's probably safe to assume that there are a few dozen others that aren't even listed--and some people are so individualistic about their spirituality that you might count each of theirs as a congregation in and of itself.

The main group of practitioners in the Denver area, according to this census, is "unclaimed."  This simply means that these people do not fit into the categories that were offered on the survey.  After this group, we find Catholicism, "Other," Mainline Protestantism, and Evangelical Protestantism.  "Other" means that they did choose a religion on the survey, but the percentage was too small to be included on the bar graph.

During my work as a hospice chaplain, the majority of the people I visited were over 80 years old.  I could not find a census on this population alone, but I imagine that the breakdown of religious beliefs would be quite different.  After attending a Buddhist-inspired university, it was kind of a hazing to be thrown straight back into the world of Christianity.  I would confidently say that over 75% of my patients were practicing Christians.

As younger people grow older and begin the dying process, the shift in this percentage is going to be huge.  Hospice workers need to be prepared for this shift by preparing now.  In my opinion, the best way to "prepare" for diversity is to learn how to open not just the mind, but the heart.

As interfaith chaplains, we are committed to doing our work without letting our own biases get in the way.  This means that if a family asks us to do a Christian prayer, we likely say yes.  If someone requests the Sacrament of the Sick, we make the call to the closest Catholic Church.  If someone tells us that God is a load of crap, we ask follow-up questions, and never try to convert the person into some kind of spiritual viewpoint.

I did take a Modern Religion class in grad school that "helped" with my ability to understand various faiths, but honestly the only thing that helps a person to become fluid in the work of a chaplain is the work itself.  I learned, through the work, that I had some deep-rooted assumptions about a lot of beliefs, and that I needed to go home after a day's work and look at my judgments.  Why, for example, did I assume that Born-again Christians were arrogant and closed-minded?  Why did I assume that Buddhists wouldn't be arrogant and closed-minded?  

Talking with one chaplain, I learned that beneath his "interfaith" work, he worries deeply about people who do not "believe in Jesus," and he goes home at night and prays for them.  This, in my opinion, is ethically unsound.  We cannot just wear the interfaith mask and go home to our own version of what other people believe.  We have to learn to take off ALL of our masks.

I invite anyone who has any opinions on these matters to work for hospice.  When you see someone die, their religious beliefs fall second to their effect on your heart.  This, I noticed, was a reciprocal connection.  I was barely asked about my religious beliefs by my patients.  These people wanted human contact, music, and sometimes a deeply spiritual prayer.  Some of them wanted to finally talk about the big elephant in the room that their families were not prepared to acknowledge.  Some of them just wanted to sit quietly.  And some of them, of course, wanted to be alone.

We learned in grad school that we need to "meet people where they are at."  It is my own arrogance, always, that gets in the way of this.  Through the work, I learned to put myself aside and listen to other people.  It's one thing to know that there are other points of view.  It's quite another to tear off your own, as if you are tearing off your own skin, and listen to someone from that place of raw, naked not-knowing.

The census from ARDA looks overwhelming, but as I scroll down to see all those various religious beliefs, I see that each number is a beating human heart with a lot of personal experience.  The "religion" category is secondary, in my opinion, to that human quality.  This, I feel, is the shift that we need to see in chaplain work, and in our lives in general.


  • JR Bailey Casper Christianity Examiner 5 years ago

    Hello Hollie,

    I found your article as interesting as it is revealing of yourself and quite possibly, of Buddhisms' preoccupation with the preeminence of the temporal and corporeal.

    This is quite the opposite of biblical Judeo-Christian doctrine and is probably the reason why you consider that other counselor's admission that he goes home to pray for the spiritual welfare of his patient's souls.

    When, I must ask, is it a bad thing(unsound)to pray for the constructive enlightenment of a person's soul?

    You see, both biblical Judaism and Christian doctrine teach that each person has but one life on this Earth, or as the Apostle Paul puts it in Hebrews 9:27 "It is appointed unto man once to die, then the Judgment."

    His letter to the Hebrews is an interesting book, written by a Levitical Jew of the Pharisee School, to learned Jews of similar doctrinal foundations.

    More in my next.

  • JR Bailey Casper Christianity Examiner 5 years ago

    Faith to the biblical Jew is not a casual thing, nor certainly a tentative concept. Faith in the biblical contexts is not a matter of what is convenient to a given situation, Old Testament and New Testament Faith is what provides the compass to a person going through ANY given situation.

    This is the dichotomy which so divides an Inclusivist Faith such as Buddhism from an Exclusivist Faith such as Judaism or Christianity.

    We have one chance to make our relationships right with God, by His Grace Alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). We ourselves can do nothing to attain salvation, it is solely the gift of God to us.

    Works based Faiths, such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, etc., or the cults which subscribe to a Christian theme (JW's, Mormons, Oneness, etc.), also works based, are ever at odds with classical biblical Christianity.

    Which is why your description of the Christian counselor's prayers as unsound, was so telling.

    Your article was well written and I commend you on it.

  • Andrew 5 years ago

    Great post, Hollie, you get a big Amen from me on this one. To meet someone, not-knowing is key. Buddhism is just as capable of rigid orthodoxy, of course, but at its best, it provides for its own dissolution. To pervert an old Buddhist metaphor, once you use the boat to cross the river, you don't need to carry it around and bash other people over the head with it!

    as for the ethical question you raise, I'm inclined to agree--it isn't that there's a problem with praying for others after the fact; the problem is the implication that fundamentally, according to his faith, the only way for him to help these people is to convert them. Therefore, whatever connection he might make with them is going to be impeded by judgment or pity, obstructing his own heart, I think. Same old same old, concepts getting in the way of fully experiencing life, happens all the time...


  • Hollie 5 years ago

    Hmm ... I have no problem with prayer, but if we pray that someone will only be ok if he/she takes Jesus Christ into his/her life, then what kind of a pluralistic world are we? Do we really believe that it is only through Christianity that a person can be redeemed?
    My personal belief is that Jesus would be appalled if he saw what some Christians are doing in his name. It seems to me that he was a very open-minded man who wanted others to open their hearts. Does opening one's heart mean that s/he has to be a Christian? THIS is what I was talking about in the article.
    I have no assumption that all Christians feel this way ... it was that particular person, on that particular day.

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