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A Presbyterian chaplain who’s also a pharmacist joins a podcast to talk about health and spiritual care for Native Americans

The Rev. Catherine Witte is the most recent guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Catherine Witte

LOUISVILLE — Already a pharmacist, Catherine Witte years ago went to seminary to be trained to be a chaplain serving the Indian Health Service. Last week, Witte joined  the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, the hosts of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” for a 48-minute conversation that can be heard here. Witte is introduced at the 1:26 mark.

“These are my experiences. I’m not speaking on behalf of any entity or group,” Witte told the hosts after they’d introduced her, adding she worked “predominantly” with the Indian Health Service and was then part of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.

After becoming a chaplain, “I never stopped being a pharmacist,” Witte said, adding ethics consultations to the array of services she could provide.

“There was so much to learn!” about ministering to Indigenous people, she said. “I had no idea how much I needed to learn and what it was going to require of me. I loved the almost 30 years of serving American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

“It was learning not only as a non-Native person about cultures regarding spiritual care and well-being,” she said. “A lot of my time was spent listening and learning, watching and being present with individuals to understand the cultural and spiritual distinctions.”

Providers in the nation’s public health system “are all about collaboration,” Witte said. “It’s not only the volume of work that’s needed, but the specific areas of expertise, to be able to translate that into meaningful and excellent health care services.” It “wasn’t just me” providing spiritual care to eligible Indigenous people, but volunteer chaplains and traditional Native healers as well. Witte would ask herself: How do I partner in the community to encourage people to seek care or preventative care services?

“As a Presbyterian minister and as a chaplain … it was, ‘this is a trusted person who’s a health care person but also someone we know, and this person knows us,’” Witte said. “When you work so long to build up trust and something comes along and there’s now distrust, how do you repair that? You continue to have conversations and continue to demonstrate your care and concern for the community. You say, ‘I’m not here for just a certain amount of time. I’m here to partner with you. Tell me how I can help.’”

No patient “enters a healthcare system because we want to, but because we all need it,” Witte said. “We exist in a body, and that’s the way it is.” People go in for health care “in a vulnerable situation,” in part because “we may have had negative interactions seeking care.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

For many Indigenous patients and their families, “the way of communication is through storytelling,” Witte said. She learned to “listen through the stories that were being told. Sometimes someone would come in for a certain condition, and that condition may not be the most distressing thing for the individual. They could be going through a loss,” whether financial or personal or something else, she said. “To have a safe space to address that was really important to people.”

Trying to provide spiritual or emotional support during the Covid pandemic was “heart-wrenching,” she said. “You want to talk about a field of ministry that requires a lot of self-reflection and self-care and humility, that’s chaplaincy. It’s wonderful, but in order to minister to others, an individual has to be cognizant of who they are and where they’ve been.”

A story she’s told many times is meeting with Indigenous Presbyterian elders when she was just out of seminary but not yet ordained. She asked one, “Do you have any advice? I feel called to work with Native people,” Witte recalled. “He smiled and said, ‘good luck!’”

“I didn’t know what to do with that, but it was so real, and he was right,” she said. “Now I look back and translate it, ‘it will be what it will be.’ If you are going to serve and be part of our communities and minister with us and to us, then get to know us. Laugh with us. Break bread with us. Be with us in times of celebration and mourning.”

“It didn’t take long for me,” Witte said. “I really truly loved the people I worked with.”

‘An individual is not a healer or a practitioner by deciding that themselves. It’s a calling that emanates from the tribal communities, the families themselves. The calling is brought to them because of the community.’ — Catherine Witte

Especially when called to help families with a scary diagnosis such as cancer, Witte learned to listen to the clinical care team, then refocus the conversation to “what does it mean for the patient and for the family?”

At a spiritual care conference, she learned the concept that one can die healed. “There is the physical death … and there’s the aspect of the Holy One doing work in the midst so that the person can go on to the next life healed,” Witte said. “I saw amazing things and I was in awe at what God was doing in the midst of such a challenging season in the life of a patient and their family.”

Native traditional healers taught Witte “that an individual is not a healer or a practitioner by deciding that themselves. It’s a calling that emanates from the tribal communities, the families themselves. The calling is brought to them because of the community.”

In a person who’s a healer, “there is inherent humility. It’s about what’s been given to you to do on the part of the Creator,” Witte said. While Presbyterians and others go to seminary to learn about ministry and chaplaincy, traditional healers “typically learn their traditions and their giftedness by being mentored over a number of years” to “learn the ceremonies and the songs and the ways they will practice their art.”

“For me, not being part of a Native community, I felt very much accepted there,” she said. “But I was very aware that what I did and how I conducted myself mattered to the community.” When a person requested traditional care and services, Witte would refer the person to someone who could provide them.

Chaplaincy “isn’t for everyone. It just isn’t,” Witte said. “It’s about discerning your call.” Being a chaplain involves “living with the tension of whatever organization you’re going to serve in … The culture will determine whether it’s a good fit or not.”

“I never wanted to give up being a pharmacist, but I felt like there was more I was being called to do,” she told Doong and Catoe. “We definitely need chaplains. It’s fun and exciting work, and you never know what you’re going to do from day to day.”

“It’s a great way to bring spirituality to the forefront. People come to you because they’re in distress,” Witte said. “They need comfort and meaning, and more so, it’s being present, witnessing and bringing hope.”

New editions of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

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