It started out as a loving favor for her Navy chaplain husband. But now it has turned into an inspiring symbol of affirmation and connection for a growing number of UCC military chaplains serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2008, as Chaplain (CMD) Peter St. Martin was about to be deployed to Iraq, he asked his wife, Judy, if she would do him a favor.
When they were newly married and he was a young parish minister in Iowa and Maine, she used to sew practically all of their two daughters' clothing, as well as pillow cases, curtains, slip covers and other household materials.
Now, he asked, would she please make him a stole of camouflage material that he could wear when serving in the Middle East?
Of course she would.
Different branches of the military wear different color camouflage. Since her husband is in the Navy, his camouflage material is blue. If he was in the Army or Air Force, it would be green, or in the Marines, dark green.
Would she make more?
When he returned stateside, St. Martin attended the UCC General Synod in 2009 in Grand Rapids, Mich. There he took his turn staffing the UCC chaplains' booth in the exhibit hall.
Prominent on the display table was his camouflage stole, with its UCC symbol on one side and a God-Is-Still-Speaking comma on the other.
Among those who admired it was Chaplain John Gundlach, UCC Minister for Government Chaplaincies.
He had an idea. Did St. Martin think his wife would be willing to make a camouflage stole for every UCC chaplain deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan? The UCC, he said, would be willing to underwrite the cost of the materials if Judy St. Martin would provide the labor.
Gundlach saw the stoles as being a symbol of a denomination that supports the ministry of its chaplains.
"It's a very tangible thing to the chaplains," he says, "a continuing reminder that they are a part of the United Church of Christ and that their church stands behind them."
Again, Judy complied.
She has created about four dozen stoles to date. Two dozen have been for UCC chaplains and another 20 or so for chaplains of other denominations who have seen them and asked if they, too, could have one made.
"It's the least I can do," she says. "I'm happy to make them because I know that stoles mean a lot to chaplains and ministers."
Caroling in the desert
U.S. Air Force Chaplain (CPT) Heather Bodwell agrees.
"Receiving mine was very special," she says. "It was the second stole presented to me by the denomination, after the one I received when I was ordained, and I thought about the thought and care that went into the ministry of making these for deploying chaplains."
Once, in the Middle East, she even loaned her stole to an Episcopal priest chaplain for a Christmas service.
"We decorated a conference room in the base chapel, laid out baked goodies from home and wrapped little presents for people to open," she says. "Then those left on base, mostly 'wounded warriors,' went Christmas caroling in the desert."
'A wonderful reminder'
U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (CPT) Deris Rice received his stole as "a pleasant surprise."
"It was a nice reminder of my covenant with the UCC," he says, "a reminder that I was connected to a group that cared about me and was praying for me."
"Towards the end of my first deployment I was having a difficult time," he remembers. "I was working in a mental health unit, and the stories were beginning to get to me. I wanted to go home.
"Then one day, as I was putting on my stole, I noticed the comma for the first time. It was a wonderful reminder that I was not alone, that God is still speaking to me. It reminded me of my continuing relationship to the UCC."
When Rice returned to his local church after his deployment, he developed a liturgy for changing his ministry from a military chaplaincy back to local church ministry in Sparta, Wis.
The liturgy included representatives from the Association, the congregation and the military and involved changing his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
Returning to parish ministry
St. Martin will retire from the Navy this fall, after serving 21 years as a military chaplain.
In the meantime, while he is serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (the Two-Four) on a ship in the middle of an ocean, his UCC profile (resume) is circulating among churches seeking a pastor.
Upon receiving a call to a local church, then he will exchange his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.
"My stole has been in Afghanistan and on the high seas," he says. "It has been 'present' in memorials to those killed in action as well as in Sunday worship, both in the dirt and on a rocking deck.
"I will wear it occasionally in the parish that will call me," he adds, "not to mark the uniqueness of my experience as much as to identify a continuance of my call to ministry, connecting one chapter to the next."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.