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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 a guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

April 23, 2024

Catherine Witte

Already a pharmacist, Catherine Witte years ago went to seminary to be trained to be a chaplain serving the Indian Health Service. Witte recently 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.’”

“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.”

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

 Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Rev. Catherine Witte is a guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Kristen Gaydos, Communications Director, Presbyterian Historical Society
Michael Gehrling, Associate, Northeast Region & Assessments, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Great Spirit God, thank you for your Spirit that flows from generation to generation and is always at work in us. Amen.