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Supporting Others as a Spiritual Midwife

Cancer. Mental Illness. Addiction. He Helps People Through Their Darkest Moments From His Wheelchair.
News Stephen Faller

Cancer patients in their final days. Addicts recovering from an overdose. People struggling with mental illness.

As a hospital chaplain, Faller works directly with patients and their families, and as a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor, he prepares others to follow in his footsteps.

He does it all from a motorized wheelchair.

Faller, 47, was born with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that affect movement and balance. He could only crawl until he was 13, when surgery allowed him limited ability to walk. He can’t straighten his left arm, and his left hand won’t open all the way. He has never seen his left palm.

“Patients are sometimes disturbed when they see this person approach them who is so visibly different,” says Faller, who received his Master of Theology degree from Princeton Seminary in 2000. “But people also know that you have been through something, which we all have, and they can connect with that.”

His disability, he notes, forces him to move through the world more slowly than others.

Yet Faller, working in his own patient, steady rhythm, has spent his life exploring the human condition through his roles as a caregiver, theologian, and author.

He calls his work “spiritual midwifery” — a term he attributes to both Socrates and Jesus, and the focus of one his four published books.

“Spiritual midwifery is the unconditional spiritual care of the person who stands or sits right in front of you,” he said. “It was something I could explore and dig into as a chaplain, and as a CPE supervisor, it’s something that I could teach to another person.”

Christianity Wheelchair Maintenance

Faller’s latest book — Christianity and the Art of Wheelchair Maintenance — tells how he found that calling, and how he, as a disabled person, has navigated organized religion, higher education, marriage, and career.

The title is a nod to one his favorite books, Robert Pirsig’s 1970 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like that book, Faller’s memoir is more than autobiography. It’s an intellectual and spiritual journey, engaging with thinkers who influenced him, including Socrates, Kierkegaard, and Thoreau.

But the principal story is Faller’s. Written in a voice that’s disarmingly conversational and frank, he lets readers feel what life is like in a wheelchair, such as with an encounter he had with a stranger in a line for a passport.

“Do you believe God wants you to be out of that chair?” the woman asks him out of the blue. “If you have true faith, you’ll be able to walk just like me.”

Faller didn’t have time to manage a response as the passport line moved up.

“These kind of interactions happen upon you, and I find myself flummoxed and then the thing is over,” he writes. “But people have different things that they are trying to work out.”

Faller, a married father of two, grew up in Maryland, attending his family’s Baptist church and developing an early interest in religion as a way to cope with his disability. But in a conservative Christian environment, his disability posed agonizing questions.

“Disability is seen as something that Jesus cures us from, instead of something we might be called to,” he says. “And it has been my calling, this very peculiar path. I just didn’t have a language for it when I was younger.”

He attended Davidson College in North Carolina, majoring in English and nurturing his spirituality by reading Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Frederick Buechner. He also found a United Methodist congregation where the pastor’s words appealed to both his spirit and his intellect.

Faller’s attitude toward his disability began to evolve.

“I think it really changed when I wanted things from God that didn’t concern my body,” he says. “But it’s a slow process.”

After earning a Master of Divinity at Duke Divinity School, he came to Princeton Seminary in the fall of 1999, seeking an opportunity to reflect and discern his own path in ministry.

At Princeton, he began a deep examination of spiritual midwifery for a model of pastoral care. The spiritual midwife, Faller says, is a helping third party between patients and their faith — not someone who claims the authority of a pastor.

“Just like in an actual birth in which it’s the mother who does the heavy lifting, the spiritual midwife is not leading so much as supporting what the person is trying to do already.”

After Princeton, he served as a chaplain at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, then completed a one-year residency program at the Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.

In his memoir, he describes the long hours he spent with the relatives of a Philadelphia man who was admitted for gunshot wounds. In the wee hours of the morning, Faller learns their names, brings coffee and blankets, and accompanies them for the doctor’s updates. After the man is pronounced dead, at 4:00 a.m., Faller leads a prayer service in the hospital chapel and walks them to their cars in the morning darkness.

Chaplains, he says, lack tools. They can’t prescribe medicine, perform surgery, or provide comforting answers to big questions.

But chaplains have one way to help.

“They have relationship,” he writes. “With nothing more than a pastoral relationship, it’s like one of those puzzles that have to be solved without using any hands.”

In 2004, Faller received board certification as a chaplain in a ceremony in Albuquerque, led by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who preaches radical compassion. As he listened to Rohr’s words that day about suffering and the symbol of the cross, he felt confirmed in his convictions.

His principal job since the early 2000s has been at Capital Health, which runs medical centers in Trenton, Hopewell, and Hamilton, as well as at the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.

Although he has stayed in New Jersey, working in the same facilities, he experiences itinerancy in the changing faces of patients, colleagues, and students — and the changing conditions that they encounter.

In this way, Faller identifies with the Methodist circuit riders, the itinerant preachers of the frontier days who covered huge swaths of territory on horseback.

“John Wesley talked about how the world is his parish,” Faller says. “That’s the space I live in all the time.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Rector at Trinity Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Nancy Hagner, Class of 2013

“Preaching is one of the most important things we do as pastors. You get to challenge people’s minds and hearts, as the gospel challenges all of us.”