TROUTMAN: Flowers at a time like this


In the beginning of my career in pastoral care, I received training in so-called cultural competency. This was in an urban hospital that served people with a variety of religious backgrounds. My education was supposed to keep an eager yet foolish chaplain, such as myself, from sticking his foot in his mouth while attempting to minister to a Hindu patient or a Jehovah's Witness family.

But though well-intentioned, there is such a diversity among individuals within a religious tradition that it is truly impossible to become “competent” if, by that word, we mean to attain a level of mastery. This is not only true in multicultural settings. There is such great diversity among Christians that I cannot pretend to know what someone believes, even in my own tradition.

Chaplains now learn about cultural humility. Anna Kornbluh’s recent book “Immediacy” understands the difference: "If we want to know what other people think, we have to ask them and misunderstand.” Notice that knowledge is gained not only by curiosity (“we have to ask them”) but also through our errors. Misunderstandings are going to happen; mistakes cannot be avoided but rather should be embraced as a means of learning. True humility is an eagerness to learn.

I’m thinking about Hanif Abdurraqib’s poem “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” which was prompted by the writer overhearing this very question from a fellow audience member at another Black poet’s public reading. To Abdurraqib’s credit, the arrogant question didn’t make him angry so much as curious. The audience member assumed that certain things are inconsequential in a crisis. But what might we learn from a flower that, as Abdurraqib put it, “can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes?” A starting place of humility can expand to ideas and insights in numerous directions, like the many petals arcing from the same bud.

Eddie Glaude Jr. recently diagnosed “the profound crisis” in America as “the sense that common purpose and public good has been thrown into the trash bin as we huddle in our silos.” It strikes me that a silo is surrounding myself with people who think just me, and that we might pat ourselves on the back for having the right answer.

Humility shares a root word with humus, the stuff of soil that makes flowers grow beautiful. I also wonder if, in the trash bin or, better yet, the compost pile, we might engage with different ideas, traditions and worldviews in order to discover an unlikely flowering right in our midst, even at such a time as this. This is less about being “right” as it is a willingness to get our hands into the mix.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church as well as a writer, pizza maker, coffee drinker and student of joy.