January 7, 2024

My master’s thesis—chaplains and racial bias

I graduated in May 2023 with an M.A. in Religion from Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. My area of emphasis was Peace and Justice, and I wrote my thesis on the topic of how healthcare chaplains perceive and can mitigate the effects of bias towards racialized groups in U.S. healthcare institutions. I had the help of a terrific faculty thesis advisor, Lonnie Valentine.

I saw Lonnie for the last time in April, during my thesis defense. He was moving slowly and had little energy, and he told me he had just come from a challenging appointment with a neurologist. And then in June, just two months later, he died during treatment for Primary Cerebral Lymphoma. As it turned out, he was very, very sick.

Lonnie was a brilliant, funny, down-to-earth guide and inspiration during the two years I spent researching and writing my thesis, and without him I could not have wrestled my inner critic into compliance sufficiently to complete this enormous task. The paper’s abstract follows, and the complete thesis paper is attached. In theory, it is also on a shelf somewhere in the Earlham School of Religion library.

A Theology and Practice of Witness:
The Role of U. S. Healthcare Chaplains in Mitigating Harmful Effects of Bias against Racialized Groups
(Link to complete paper)

This paper explores the topic of how healthcare chaplains can make a positive difference in the area of healthcare bias. On average, members of racialized groups in the United States experience worse healthcare, and worse health outcomes, than white people—a complex problem with deep historical roots. The discrepancy has many causes, including bias that is embedded in the design of clinical algorithms and medical instruments, bias that is calcified within aspects of healthcare culture, and biases that individuals hold. To the best of the author’s knowledge, no research has been done on how, or whether, U.S.-based healthcare chaplains perceive this bias in the course of their work, or how they see a role for themselves in mitigating its effects.

Interviews were conducted with eight people who have worked as healthcare chaplains in the U.S., and a qualitative analysis of the results shows ways in which some chaplains notice and grapple with the problem of healthcare bias. The results also show ways in which chaplains operate both as healthcare-system “insiders” who are colleagues to the medical staff, and as “outsiders” whose moral, ethical, and spiritual authority originates outside the walls of the hospital or clinic. This paper delineates more than twenty types of interventions that chaplains, as insiders who stand outside the system, can use to make a positive difference to the problem of healthcare bias. This paper also provides a theology that calls chaplains to bear witness to healthcare bias through active resistance and contemplative presence, one of many theologies that could be developed.