Listening with cultural humility
Martha Kay (MK) Nelson is well aware of the stereotypes of her profession, and she is happy to dispel them. “People often have the perception that clergy are holier than thou, that we have some level of elevated morality. It’s just not true.” Laughing, she confesses her fondness for Irish whiskey.
But MK is passionate about her work to help people find connection, meaning, and purpose in their lives. Raised Presbyterian, she has since explored many other traditions, especially Buddhism. She is a graduate of the University of Montana in her beloved Missoula (BA, Creative Writing) and of Harvard Divinity School (MTS, Master of Theological Studies, World Religions).
“I’ve been blessed with an easy faith – a life-long sense that there is something bigger than us to which we can connect… something that guides us and relates with us,” MK says. “That’s all I know.” As she puts it, “I am a free agent…free agent of the Spirit.” It’s a trait she finds particularly helpful in hospice, where chaplains are called to meet patients and families right where there are, regardless of any belief system they may – or may not – hold.
Articulate and curious, MK takes a broad approach to spiritual care, leading with listening and what she calls “cultural humility.” With nearly ten years of experience, she joined Mission Hospice in 2014 as a Spiritual Counselor. MK was recently appointed the successor to Rev. Linda Siddall, who will soon be retiring as our Director of Spiritual Care.
“Hospice chaplains need to be unafraid, so that we can meet people with openness, humility, and curiosity. It’s about really seeing the other person. And it’s ok to ask questions.” MK, known for her broad smile, is great at asking questions – and listening deeply to the answers.
She is definitely not afraid. Almost three years ago, on her 39th birthday, MK took monastic vows in both Buddhism and Christianity, embarking on a project she called “urban love monk: a year of receiving what’s given.” For one full year, she followed the rhythm of those vows inside the life she already had: slowing down, praying five times a day, writing, listening, being. She was supported in her spiritual practice by an Indiegogo fundraising campaign.
“It’s amazing what happens when you leap,” she says. “It was a huge luxury and gift to take that restorative time. The experience now infuses my work at Mission Hospice, deepening my ability to be with patients.” MK is writing a book about her monastic year.
And she’s continued her thoughtful, intentional life, spending her free time with family and friends (including three-year old twin goddaughters), reading, and hiking – especially to the views at the top of San Mateo’s Sugarloaf Mountain, one of her favorite places.
“In hospice, every one of our patients has a story,” she says. “We are witnessing people at their most vulnerable. It is important to take time to acknowledge the intensity of that, and the sacrality of the work.”
MK’s blog is urbanlovemonk.blogspot.com.