Mitchell R. Morrissey
Denver District Attorney
Unit 5:
Cultural Considerations

: Introduce cultural considerations relevant to pastoral trauma care with victims of crime.


Write a 2-3 page reflection paper on these two topics:

  • How do you describe your cultural heritage? Go back several generations if you have the information.
  • What cultural attitudes and beliefs have influenced the person you are today


  • (In-class Activity) The instructor reads off the following list of words rather quickly and asks students to rank them on a piece of paper from 5 (feel very good about the word) to 1 (feel very bad about the word). The total number of 1s and 2’s will indicate group biases without taking individuals into consideration.
    • Republican
    • Lesbian
    • Christian
    • Elderly
    • Hindu
    • Smoker
    • Catholic
    • Democrat
    • Immigrant
    • Muslim
    • Mentally Ill
    • Buddhist
    • Gay
    • Jew
    • Alcohol
    • Developmentally Disabled
    • Defense Attorney
Culture plays a complex role in pastoral trauma care, particularly for faith leaders in the inner-city, for those engaged in chaplaincy, and for those interested in mass community trauma ministry.

The need for the provision of culturally appropriate services is driven by the demographic realities of our nation and specific communities.i An immigrant arrives in the United States every 31 seconds,ii adding to the nation’s diverse culture. Religion is one aspect of culture, and one’s culture and spirituality are more frequently than not intricately intertwined.

Projections for the U.S. population in the year 2020 are 63.7% Anglo, 15.2% Hispanic, 13.3% Black, 6.8% Asian, and .84% American Indian.iii

At the same time, the United States also is experiencing a dramatic faith transition. The nation, once steeped in Judeo-Christian tradition, is still primarily Christian (84%), but it is rapidly becoming the most spiritually diverse country in the world.

“More religions are being practiced in the U.S. today than anywhere else,” says Dr. Paul Griffiths, professor of religions at the University of Chicago.

Ways in which spiritual diversity has changed between 1990 and 2001 include:

  • The number of Muslims in the United States has increased by 109%. At least six million Muslims now live in the United States, outnumbering Jews, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.
  • The number of Buddhists in the United States has increased by 170%. At least four million Buddhists now live in this country.
  • The number of Hindus in the United States has increased by 237%. More than one million Hindus now live in this country.
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  • More than 150 million Americans say they are practitioners/adherents of Christianity in more than 2,000 denominations.v This diversity among Christians affects how faith leaders and pastoral counselors choose to interact with victims of crime. For example, some may believe that crisis opens the door to evangelism. However, crisis intervention should be focused around a "ministry of presence" rather than conversion and evangelism.

What is Culture?

Culture is broader than religion, although religion is one component of culture. There are a number of definitions of “Culture,” each reflecting a unique perspective.

  • “The ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people or group, that are transferred, communicated, or passed along as in or to succeeding generations.”
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  • “A learned, shared and symbolically transmitted design for living.” (Kluckhorn & Kelly)
  • vii
  • “Culture encompasses not only national identity or racial origin but also patterns that shape the way a group of people live and work together… commonalities of language, spiritual beliefs, perceptions of time & space, how they dress, how they view aging and death, how they play and how they work.”
  • viii
  • “Cultures are defined by being transmissible not only within a group but across time and generations. They seem to serve to bond groups in common purpose thereby providing protection not otherwise available to individuals in response to threats to survival.”
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Principles of Cultural Competence 

The following is an excerpt from the Guidebook: Achieving Cultural Competence: A Guidebook for Providing Services to Older Americans and their Families (2001).

There is an ethnic to a culturally competent practice. When professionals practice in a culturally competent way, programs that appropriately serve people of diverse cultures can be developed. Each person must first possess the core fundamental capacities of warmth, empathy and genuineness. To achieve cultural competence, professionals must first have a sense of compassion and respect for people who are culturally different. Then, practitioners can learn behaviors that are congruent with cultural competence. Just learning the behavior is not enough. Underlying the behavior must be an attitudinal set of behavior skills and moral responsiblity. It is not about the things one does. It is about fundamental attitudes. When a person has an inherent caring, appreciation and respect for others they can display warmth, empathy and genuineness. This then enables them to have culturally congruent behaviors and attitudes. When these three essentials intersect, practitoners can exemplify cultural competence in a manner that recognizes values and affirms cultural differences among their clients.

Diversity and Inclusiveness

Many people use the terms “diversity” and “inclusiveness” interchangeably, yet they have different meanings. “Diversity” describes the extent to which an organization has people from diverse backgrounds and communities working as board members, staff, and/or volunteers. “Inclusiveness” refers to actions that not only include diverse individuals, but also place value on the perspectives and contributions of all people – striving to incorporate all needs and viewpoints. Inclusive groups are diverse at all levels.x

The Denver Foundation (Denver, Colorado), has developed a guidebook titled, Inclusiveness at Work: How to building inclusive non-profit organizations, which states that characteristics such as the following indicate cultural inclusiveness (which includes spiritual inclusiveness):

  • Intentional solicitation of feedback about themselves to enhance self awareness.
  • Understanding that not all people respond in the same way to messages, and that it is important to communicate in culturally appropriate and sensitive ways.
  • Development of internal systems to help bridge cultural gaps between people from different backgrounds and ensuring that all voices are heard and respected.
  • Use of different cultural nuances in planning and implementing programs.
  • Realization that there are no simple answers to the challenges of living in a diverse world, but that diversity provides opportunities at many levels.
  • Open to change, willing to look inward, and willing to bring key stakeholders together for open, honest dialogue.
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Values and Attitudes

Sensitivity to the culture of others is possible only after one has become aware of his or her own cultural and spiritual values, attitudes, beliefs and practices. Following this awareness comes the recognition that people from other cultures may not share your viewpoint. This process is much more complex than simply considering different skin colors, languages, or styles of clothing because it reveals our own prejudices and biases.

People tend to have an “ethnocentric” view in which they see their own culture. Individuals may be threatened by or defensive about cultural differences. The first step is to recognize the difference. The second step is to determine if the bias or difference can be overlooked when supporting people in crisis or if the bias is so strong would interfere.

How to Help in a Culturally-Sensitive Manner

Faith leaders and pastoral counselors tend to prescribe to a certain culture of helping that may include initiating contact with someone perceived to be in need of help, interjecting spiritual content from their own perspective into supportive communication, and assuming that people in distress want and need help.

Other cultural groups may have differing perspectives on what is stressful, what is to remain private, when it is appropriate to ask for help, when suffering is to be accepted rather than relieved, and whether to trust helpers outside one’s own culture.

Following are a few examples of potential differences in the culture of helping:xii

The limited nature of this curriculum permits only a brief overview of the issues and is not intended to provide a recipe for relating to various cultures:

  • While a firm handshake is common for the majority of Americans, Asians and Native Americans generally offer a softer, gentler hand. Any touching between males and females is not acceptable among many Muslims and Orthodox Jews.
  • Eye contact is generally considered to be a positive and affective listening technique for caregivers. However, for many Mexicans, Native Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders, eye contact might indicate discourtesy, disrespect, or even defiance.
  • The common mental health approach in the United States is to deal with the psychological aspects of suffering utilizing talk therapy and medications. Other cultures, including Asians, tend to express suffering from a physical perspective such as headaches or chest pains to describe emotional stress. When the helper finds no physiological cause for the headaches or chest pains, the sufferer may be labeled a hypochondriac rather than helping more appropriately.xiii
  • Navajos believe that the dead body is evil and therefore do not look at or touch it. They do not visit gravesites. Viewing a dead body is prohibited in Islam.
  • While much helping attention is paid to individual victims in the United States, many other cultures tend to understand that a problem for any one person is a problem for the entire family and view the effect on every family member equally to the immediate victim. This can impact the level of cooperation with the justice process when the offender is a family member. This type of generalized concern is very common among Native Americans and Asians.
  • Some cultures believe that the property where a tragic event occurred has become polluted and needs sanctification through purification rituals. For example, following the killings of five Cambodian children and injury to 29 more children and a teacher in Stockton, California, in 1989, the families politely refused mental health counseling, but purification of the playground by Buddhist monks was extremely significant to them.
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Cross-Cultural Helping Strategies

While the previous section points out the importance of acknowledging how cultures differ, it is equally important to feel confident with basic helping skills: warmth, empathy, and genuineness.xv These traits, first identified in a 1967 research project, have been shown to be the most important attending skills in a helping and supportive relationship.

In some cultures respected family and elders are considered “natural helpers.” In Mexican culture, godparents (compadres and comadres) are respected members of the family and looked to as significant helpers. Folk healers and shamans are common among many Native Americans and Asian cultures, particularly the Hmong. The guidance of ancestral spirits of the dead is also common among Mexicans, Japanese, and Native Americans.

Communication Styles

Genuine appreciation and respect of differences becomes possible only with appropriate communication. The practice of sincerity is the greatest communicator.xvi

Similarly, using the spiritual language of one’s own faith can create distance from a victim whose faith differs. It is important to develop inclusive spiritual language that does not seem foreign or offensive to a person of another faith. For example, the word “Clergy” is not used in Native American spirituality, Hinduism, or Buddhism. These groups will likely be more comfortable with “faith leader” or “spiritual teacher.” The Bible is used only in Christianity. Jews use the Torah and the Talmud. Muslims use the Qur’an. Others use sacred texts. Christians worship in a church but followers of other faiths worship in a faith community, house of worship, temple, synagogue, mosque, or meditation center. The most inclusive terms are "faith leader", "faith community" and "sacred texts".

An area of sensitivity centers on male-female relationships. In some patriarchal cultures, only males speak with authorities. Islam and Orthodox Judaism dictate that males and females outside the family should not touch. Among many Muslims, males outside the family should not see the hair or uncovered arms or neck of females. A male should never enter a Muslim home unless the husband/father is also present.


Respect and appreciation must be the foundation of any relationship across cultural lines if positive and creative results are to be realized.

iAchieving cultural competence: A guidebook for providing services to older Americans and their families (2001). Available at
iiU.S. Census Bureau. Available at
ivKosmin, B. & Seymour, L. (2002). Top twenty religions in the United States, 2001. New York: City University of New York.
vBedell, K.B. (Ed.). (1998). Yearbook of American & Canadian churches: 1998. Nashville: Abingdon.
viFortune, Marie, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin
viiCarlson, Lee W., Child Sexual Abuse, Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA, 1988, p.29
viiiThe assumption is that if the victim had screamed for help in the city, someone would have come to her aid. By not crying for help, it was believed that the victim must have eagerly participated in a sexual encounter and thus deserved to die.
ixMatthew 5:28; I Corinthians 5: 2, 5; Augustine supports this interpretation, stating that “the evil of lust, a name which is given too many vices, but is properly attributable to violent sexual appetite …”
xThe Denver Foundation. (2005). Inclusiveness at work: How to build inclusive nonprofit organizations. Available at
xiiOgawa, B. (in press). Cultural and spiritual competence. In Office for Victims of Crime. National Victim Assistance Academy Text. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime.
xvTruax, C. B. & Carkuff, r. R. (1967). Toward effective counseling and psychotherapy. Chicago: Aldine.
xviOgawa, op. cit.