(Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/Getty Images) Chaplain Patricia Wilson works at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, and as a reservist she ministers to military personnel as well.

(Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/Getty Images) Chaplain Patricia Wilson works at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, and as a reservist she ministers to military personnel as well.

Meg, a chaplain at an urban academic medical center, spoke often about hope in the time I spent shadowing and interviewing her for my book Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine. “I often say I have a theology of hope,” she told me. “I’ll often say to families of patients that when you’re five years old you want a red bicycle and when you’re twenty-five you want a red convertible … Our hopes do change … as we mature and grow and, and through life’s transitions, the same hopes have to change.” In these large hospitals people can often lose hope but “to lose a hope doesn’t mean that you lose all hope. Part of a chaplain’s task is to help people find something to be hopeful about.”

I thought a lot about Meg and her theology of hope as I watched Martin Doblmeier’s important new documentary Chaplains: On the Front Lines of Faith. Airing last fall on PBS stations, Doblmeier asks who chaplains are and how they work in the military, healthcare, and prisons. He takes viewers into chaplain’s daily work across settings as they counsel soldiers, support patients, and minister to the incarcerated. He also introduces viewers to chaplains in some surprising places, including workplaces (Tyson Foods), police forces, Hollywood (through the Motion Picture Television Fund), NASCAR, and on Capitol Hill. What might the chaplains he profiled think about Meg’s theology of hope, I wondered as I watched? Do they share this or any theology? Do chaplains share much beyond the title of chaplain?

Many Americans know little about chaplains, perhaps recalling only Father John Mulcahy, the chaplain character who appeared on the 1970s show M*A*S*H. And yet, chaplains date to the earliest years of the American republic. In 1774 Jacob Duché, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was recruited to offer prayers before the First Continental Congress. After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the U.S. Senate selected Samuel Proovost, an Episcopal bishop from New York, as chaplain in April 1789. The House elected William Linn, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister, as its first chaplain in May 1789. Both Proovost and Linn received an annual salary of $500. After Congress moved to Washington, D.C., local clergy took turns leading prayers before permanent chaplaincies were institutionalized. Chaplains remain in Congress today where they hold full-time, strictly nonpartisan, and nonsectarian jobs. Each chaplain has a staff and is paid as a level IV executive federal employee: $158,700 in 2015. As profiled in Doblmeier’s film, Barry Black currently serves the Senate and Fr. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J, is chaplain to the House of Representatives. Each serves as a chaplain to all—from members of Congress and their staffs to the Capitol Police and the cleaning crews for the buildings.

Chaplains have also long played important roles in the military as non-combatants who support soldiers and their families at home and in the field. Doblmeier profiles Father Paul Hurley, a U.S. Army colonel and Catholic priest who was the highest-ranking chaplain in Afghanistan. “As the chaplain you are out there,” he explains, “with the soldiers, with the troops wherever they are.” We see Father Hurley leading mass, counseling troops, and supporting other chaplains, including those from a spectrum of religious backgrounds: Jewish, Anglican, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Pentecostal. All are serving soldiers who are deployed in Afghanistan. “We are focused now on taking care of each another after all this time of deployment. That is my primary purpose—to make sure that the chaplains here are ok—that they have what they need so they can do their job, so they can minister,” he explains. While public debates—particularly about how military chaplains can pray and about the place of atheists in the military—rage, Doblmeier brings viewers to the front lines to hear chaplains and soldiers talk about the challenges of combat, questions of just war, and the psychological effects of multiple deployments. While these voices do not mute public debates, they show how some chaplains and soldiers actually relate to one another in combat zones.

Despite the formal separation of church and state in the United States, congressional and military chaplains are paid with public funds, as are prison chaplains. Doblmeier introduces viewers to prison chaplains through a profile of Karuna Thompson, a Buddhist chaplain, who works in a men’s maximum-security prison in Oregon. In addition to one-on-one conversation with inmates and the work she does organizing religious services, she helps with job training, housing, and support when people are released. “What a chaplain does is lean into the painful places,” she explains. She gets to see the good in people, she says, and support individuals through their struggles on the inside and as they are released.

The chaplains profiled in this film, and those I interviewed in my own research, are wildly diverse—from Melissa Brannan, an Assemblies of God chaplain at Tyson Foods to Rabbi Arthur Rosenberg, a Jewish retirement home chaplain in Hollywood. While some might share Meg’s theology of hope, the religious or spiritual underpinnings of their work vary as do their histories in particular sectors. While chaplains are required in most areas of military and prison life, they are optional in police and fire departments and workplaces. While workplace chaplains have strong evangelical Christian roots, healthcare chaplaincy and the educational models (clinical pastoral education) used to train many chaplains have deep roots in mainline Protestantism. While many Catholics and Jews have become chaplains, chaplaincy in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu communities is in its infancy—where important questions are being raised about the concept altogether.

The chaplains Doblmeier profiles do not share a uniform theology of hope—or any theology—and I remain uncertain after watching this film whether they share much beyond their titles. Many—probably most—are good listeners, genuinely concerned about the people for whom they care. Many have deep networks in their community and serve as effective translators between particular communities and the police or families and healthcare providers. As Melissa Brannan, chaplain at Tyson Foods, says, “I can’t cure this lady’s cancer … I can encourage her. I can call her. I can pray for her. I can love on her. But I can’t fix it.” It is in this role, as people who care and can go between multiple constituencies that chaplains might do their best work, as they facilitate understanding and, in some cases, even hope.

That said, I am left with a number of questions about chaplains after watching this film. First, while there is no reliable data about the number of chaplains working in the United States, I wonder why here and why now. Religious studies scholar Winnifred Sullivan calls chaplains “ministers without portfolios” who “serve the spiritual needs of a large, mobile and restless population” in her recent book A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care and the Law. How are changing religious demographics, particularly growing numbers of people who claim no religious affiliation, influencing the demand for and work of chaplains?

Second, what factors influence both who chaplains are and also what work they do in different sectors? The history of chaplaincy in different sectors is a part of this question, as are formal guidelines about whether chaplains are required or optional, paid or volunteer. While public-private distinctions matter, this film shows chaplains thriving in both public (military) and private (workplace) settings. Demographically, chaplains also vary by sector with more conservative Christians, for example, in the military and more mainline Protestants in healthcare. Airport chaplains started as primarily Catholic but have expanded, mostly among other Christian traditions. The reasons for and effects of these variations are open questions I continue to ponder.

Finally, I want to know much more than is addressed in this film about questions of religious diversity. How do chaplains work with people who are religiously similar to and different from themselves? While some of the chaplains in the film say they never violate the tenants of their own faith, I imagine this is not so simple in daily practice. In my own work in healthcare, I found that chaplains have two approaches when they work with people who are religiously different from themselves. Some chaplains neutralize differences by drawing on broad languages of spirituality or meaning-making. This is the “religions are all different roads leading to the top of the same mountain” approach. Many chaplains talk generally about those roads through a broad language of spirituality. One chaplain I interviewed, for example, told me that he is “just somebody who walks in, takes them [the patient or family] as they are, listens to their stories, shares their concerns … I think the most we can offer them is just a listening ear, and a caring heart, and somebody who takes them the way they are, who has no expectations.”

Instead of trying to neutralize religious differences, other chaplains I interviewed try to engage with them and to speak to patients and families on their own terms. When one chaplain told me about how she prays with patients from different backgrounds, she said:

There are some phrases that I use and I suppose they come out of my own spirituality. But, you know, we pray, depending on the person … if they’re charismatic or Pentecostal or something I’m going to pray differently than I normally do. In that case I might pray for the healing light of Jesus to be poured through the patient’s body, make them well in body, mind, and spirit … But if I’m praying with a Catholic patient, they really don’t want a lot of elaboration—they want the Lord’s Prayer. That’s it. Maybe a Hail Mary. And then if you start to say something more it makes them nervous … But basically I try to figure out what it is on that person’s heart that they want to desire or lift up that day and that is what we pray about.

Sociologists call this technique code-switching and the healthcare chaplains I interviewed do it often. My guess is that some of the chaplains in the film do this and others do not—probably influenced both by their own background and training and also by the sector within which they work.

Martin Doblmeier has done a great service to chaplains, and all of us, by shining a light on these important, often overlooked professionals. I hope we can keep the light on as we continue to better understand who chaplains are and what they have and continue to do around the edges of many American institutions.

Wendy Cadge is a professor in the sociology department at Brandeis University.