It is rather a strange 21st-century phenomenon. There are people I have never met — and may never meet — in “real life” who know things about me that I haven’t shared even with members of my own family. It all started, for me, with a group on Twitter. I don’t even remember how we all found each other, but somehow a bunch of hospital chaplains from very different religious backgrounds and several different countries started a weekly chat at #SocMedChap, for Social Media Chaplains. We would take turns facilitating the discussion, choosing a topic and throwing out a few different questions for the group to tweet responses. It was eye-opening reading these different perspectives from fellow chaplains, even in 140-character bursts.
Chaplaincy, especially on night shift, can be isolating work. Most of the time, when I was at the hospital, I was the only chaplain here for the majority of my shift. I only saw my colleagues in passing. And when I went to ministry conferences for continuing education, most of the material was geared toward those on church staffs. So this Twitter group came to be very important. Even apart from our scheduled group chats (which we don’t do anymore), I enjoyed communicating with various members of the group individually. If I tweeted (in vague terms, of course) about a tough situation at work, no matter what time of night it was, the chances were good that one or more of them would respond, offering their prayers, positive thoughts, and support. They understood what I was going through in a way few other people could, and knowing they were there — wherever “there” might be geographically — meant the world to me.
On Facebook, I found more people who could relate to me in rare ways, through a closed, private group for young (under 40) women in ministry, members of The Young Clergy Women Project. There, I read the struggles that my sisters are facing, written with the honesty that only such a safe space would allow, and many times I nod along, saying, “Oh yes — me, too!” Others comment, offering good advice, sharing similar stories, recommending books and other resources, or simply letting the poster know they are praying for her. Sometimes the stories are more of a “You all will never believe this really happened to me!” nature, and I find myself laughing out loud. That, too, is therapeutic.
I was invited to join several subgroups from this one. In the one for single young clergywomen, we share dating stories — from the comically horrible to the encouragingly delightful — and commiserate about the insensitive things people say to singles or the challenges of living in a world that seems built for couples and families. The hospital chaplains subgroup is much smaller, but a great source of new ideas and a sounding board for the unique difficulties of healthcare chaplaincy. I have just recently joined the subgroup for those of us living with chronic illnesses (in my case, depression) and find reassurance there that I’m not alone. It’s comforting to know that I can share anything in confidence and my sisters will be praying for me, as I pray for them on the days when they feel overwhelmed by the demands of ministry and life. At least once a day, some post or comment in one of these groups will have me sighing contentedly, “These are my people.”
And they are, amazingly enough. I don’t know what their voices sound like or what color their sofas are. In the cases of some of my Twitter friends, I’ve never seen a picture of them and don’t know their real names. (I traded messages with one friend for months before knowing that she was blind.) But I know that in a brief sentence or two, we can have a conversation in which I feel heard and understood. As much as we complain about living so much of our lives online, and roll our eyes at the horrible things the internet “trolls” write to others from the safety of anonymity, I’m also grateful for the connections that can be made. How else would I know a vicar who makes her home in England; an Anglican priest and CPE supervisor in Canada; a healthcare chaplain in the Cayman Islands; a quadriplegic Catholic blogger and disability advocate; a Jewish Hospice chaplain; a fellow geek-girl in a Tennessee seminary; a Pagan hospital chaplain in a distant city; or young clergywomen scattered all over the country and beyond? Without social media, I would never have had the opportunity to learn from any of them, and my life would be the poorer for it. They, and others, are some of the kindest, wisest people I’ve ever (never) met.