Why chaplaincy? 'People are the reason we serve'
I am not someone special, nor from some special or extraordinary ministry. Instead, I'm a committed servant of God's people in the real world.
One might ask, "Why serve as a chaplain in the military?" I would say only that the Good News is for everyone and should not be denied to persons serving in the military. They are the same young men and women who, as children, we taught to believe in a higher being, a Creator, a gracious and merciful God. For that reason, one can serve his or her ministerial calling in the military.
As a chaplain in the U.S. Army, my primary purpose is to insure that all military members can practice their religious beliefs, what ever that may be.
Providing for faith practice and performing sacred rites are the easy part. Chaplains enter the military already equipped to perform ministry in their own or similar traditions - preaching, teaching, praying, evangelizing, baptizing, sharing communion. This is easy.
The challenge comes in providing for ministry when it conflicts with who you are and what you believe. Chaplains must seek out other religious leaders or materials to accommodate individuals' diverse beliefs.
To be a good shepherd/pastor in the military, as well as other public ministries, chaplains must "second class" their change-agent mentality. You do not have to believe as they do, but you do have to provide for others' beliefs. I am not talking about compromising your faith. I am talking about insuring that others are able to practice their faith.
Ministry in combat is an added challenge to an already challenging ministry. You are constantly confronted with the reality of human destruction, human guilt, human fear and other human needs.
The Iraq and Afghanistan war is a family deployment. This truly is the first time in our nations history or, at least since the Mexican war, where we find children and parents, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters, brothers and brothers, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, cousins, aunts, uncles - all deployed and fighting in a war at the same time.
Young people are dying and or afraid to die. The chaplain/pastor must be available to listen and comfort both the leaders and the followers.
Recently, a young female soldier - a Roman Catholic - came to my office seeking counseling. She had been in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion that had seriously damaged the vehicle in which she was riding. With still two months left before redeploying home, she had been on the road for 10 months and had experienced at least seven IEDs. The mother of an 8-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, her husband had abandoned the family and divorced her. So, as an Army reservist, she volunteered to come to Iraq in order to pay off bills, get a decent house and return to college. Now, since she's been in Iraq, her ex-husband has sought a court order for temporary custody, preventing her from leaving the children with her parents. On top of that, she must pay him child support until she returns.
How do I as a Protestant minister respond to a young, angry and afraid Roman Catholic mother who is blaming herself for not being with her children? You listen very intentionally. You talk about believing in yourself and trusting in God who has brought her safe this far. You help her reclaim trust and hope, so she can be better focused, more alert. But the hardest thing is that there are no guarantees.
In another situation, a team of soldiers who have lived together, fought together, protected each other and witnessed others' deaths are now confronted with the loss of two of their own members. At the request of the commander, the chaplain comes and stands beside him as he tells the soldiers about the deaths. The soldiers are angry and want to hear nothing of God. But it becomes clear: It's this young captain, at this moment, who needs the chaplain more than his men.
Christ's intent for all persons is a life of union with God and a sense of hope and faith. And when chaplains cry out for God's mercy for people in the military, they are heard and given wisdom and compassion just as their counterparts in civilian life.
What a wonderful truth we have: Good News is for everyone! What a wonderful relationship we have: Access to God in boldness and confidence! People are the reason we serve.
U.S. Army Chaplain (Col.) Lilton Marks, a UCC minister, is Command Chaplain for the multinational forces serving in Iraq. This column is an abridged version of an address he gave on April 26 at the 2006 Ministerial Institute at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, his alma mater.