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Hospital chaplains finding ways to help the ‘nones’ — patients who identify as religiously unaffiliated – The Mercury News


Lying in his bed at a Wheaton rehabilitation center, Eddie Wisniewski grimaced when a chaplain holding a Bible appeared in the doorway.

That day in 2022, Wisniewski had already been in a hospital for days, then spent a week in physical therapy. He was relearning how to walk as he recovered from lymphedema that left him with swollen legs.

He was not in the mood for preaching.

The chaplain, the Rev. Arnold Hoskins, however, made no attempt to sermonize. Instead, Hoskins, the manager of the Spiritual Care Department at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, where Wisniewski was staying, walked in quietly and asked Eddie about his many visible tattoos.

So began a yearslong relationship in which the chaplain and Wisniewski, a 64-year-old Harley-Davidson devotee and father of three, have never spoken one word about God.

Wisniewski is one of an increasing number of people in America who researchers call “religiously unaffiliated,” or more commonly, the “nones” — those who respond “nothing at all” when asked their religious affiliation. Wisniewski grew up attending Catholic Mass, but now finds comfort and meaning in other things, from spending time with his friends and family to working on his motorcycles.

Decades ago, fewer than 10% of people identified as what researchers call “nones.” Today, that number is closer to nearly 3 in 10 Americans, according to Greg Smith, a researcher at the Pew Research Center.

Wisniewski’s and Hoskins’ connection illustrates the way in which chaplains are updating how they support people as Americans’ search for spiritual meaning is shifting.

And reaching the religiously unaffiliated can come with challenges. Chaplains who are devout may have to check their religious beliefs at a patient’s door.

The nones are a complicated, diverse group in terms of their religious experiences. Many have grown up with religion but no longer attend church; 90% of the nones in the Pew survey said they seldom or never attend religious services.

The Pew report, built on a 2023 survey of 11,000 people, found that among the about 3,000 religious nones, about 29% reject the notion of any higher power or spiritual force. Many feel religion can cause harm, or societal problems such as intolerance. And although some have a negative view of religion, the report found people “on the whole express mixed views rather than outright hostility” toward religion. Nearly all nones say they seldom or never go to religious services.

But that doesn’t mean they have completely excised spirituality from their life; many say they believe in some kind of higher power. And spirituality can be demonstrated or leaned on in other ways, Pew noted, surveying people about everything from nature to crystals to tattoos.

Wisniewski said he sometimes talks to his deceased parents, buried near his Bridgeview home. And on the occasions when he does “talk to the man,” God, he said he will pour himself a Jack and Coke and sit in his garage. He asks questions. He has all kinds of questions he doesn’t know the answers to.

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