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.
|Capt. Donald P. Troast, U.S. Navy chaplain|
"We need UCC chaplains in the military," insists the Rev. Donald P. Troast, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of U.S. submarine force chaplains, offering his own "commercial" at the outset of his sermon at the UCC's Amistad Chapel on May 26.
"We need the diversity that they bring. We need the openness that they bring. We need the sense of mainline tradition that they bring."
Preaching to about 100 worshipers in advance of Memorial Day weekend, Troast recounted moving moments when military chaplains have been both mediators and recipients of God's grace during war, loneliness, suffering, death and survival.
Speaking with tears in his eyes, Troast recalled a time recently — during a tour in Afghanistan — that he returned to his quarters and found a handwritten note from an officer requesting a few minutes of his time.
The officer, an Episcopalian, wanted to receive Holy Communion on the night before his troops were being sent into battle, yet the officer's unit chaplain — a Missouri Synod Lutheran — was not comfortable serving him because of their denominational differences.
But, because of the UCC's open-table approach to the Eucharist, Troast — unlike some chaplains that come from more-restrictive traditions — was able to oblige.
"He was afraid of making wrong decisions in combat that might result in the loss of life," recalled Troast, who reassured the officer of his intellect, training, and support of his soldiers. "And then we had Holy Communion," said Troast, who used the Book of Common Prayer to prepare and consecrate the holy meal "in the tradition he was accustomed to."
"You see why we need UCC chaplains?" he said.
Troast, who has served 19 years in military ministry and was selected last year to lead the Navy's submarine chaplains, was one of 15 military chaplains who gathered last week for a retreat at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
"It feels like we've come home," said Troast, speaking of his first visit to the UCC's national offices.
The UCC has 55 chaplains serving throughout the U.S. military and another 25 chaplains serving veterans and their families with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While it is presumed that chaplains exist primarily to provide worship services for service members and their families, "we do so much more," Troast said.
"Every day a service member approaches a chaplain and says, 'Hey Chap, you got a minute,' and we always do," he said.
According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains — who do not carry weapons — are classified as non-combatants. Yet they train and work alongside military personnel in every respect. The constitutionality of chaplains has been upheld repeatedly by U.S. courts, because the establishment clause ensures that citizens have "free exercise" of religion — something that might prove impossible in the military, given tours of duty, isolating locations and restrictive conditions, without the presence of chaplains.
"Imagine if your minister showed up with you at work everyday," Troast said. "That's exactly what we do."
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years who now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy, hosted the retreat in Cleveland.
"It has been our privilege this week to have 15 of our finest clergy with us, our military chaplains," said Gundlach, in introducing the chaplains to Church House staff and visitors.
While in Cleveland, chaplains met with church officers and called for UCC churches to reach out to military families, especially those returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We need to take care of our returning warriors who are hurting mentally, physically and spiritually," Troast said.
Participating in the chaplain retreat were Lt. Cmdr. Peter E. Bauer, USAR (Southern Conference); Capt. Heather A. Bodwell, USAF (Northern Plains Conference); Col. Stephen B. Boyd, USAR (CA-NV Southern Conference); Capt. Countess C. Cooper (Central Atlantic Conference); Capt. Aristides Fokas (Penn Central Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Leila H. Gomulka, USN (Calvin Synod); Capt. N. Charlene Johnson, USAF (Minnesota Conference); Maj. R. Michael Lake (Kansas-Oklahoma Conference); Cmdr. Luis A. Perez, USN (Florida Conference); Capt. Deris L. Rice, USAR (Wisconsin Conference); Lt. Cdr. Leticia P.J. Rouser, USN (Hawaii Conference); Lt. Col. Grant W. Speece, ARNG (Minnesota Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Beth A. Stallinga, USN (Minnesota Conference); CDR Ronald C. Sturgis, USN (South Central Conference); Capt. Donald P. Troast, USN (Massachusetts Conference); and Col. John L. Trout, ARNG (Penn Central Conference).
|Cmdr. Don Troast talks to a crewmember of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Montpelier. Troast recently assumed duties as the first force chaplain of the submarine force in 15 years. U.S. Navy | Xander Gamble photo.|
"Because of my personal experience with the Submarine Force," said Troast, "I think I have a good handle on what religious support requirements for the Submarine Force are."
Troast previously served the Submarine Force as a squadron chaplain from 1994 to 1997. He also served as command chaplain for the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group and various Marine Corps units deploying to the Far East and Afghanistan.
Troast attended Hope College in Holland, Mich., where he majored in biology and physical education with the intention of being a high school teacher and coach. He then received a call to ministry and went to the theological school at Drew University in Madison, N.J., graduating in 1978. Ordained by the United Church of Christ, he served churches in the Boston area for 13 years and joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1991.
"[Chaplains] exist because of the free exercise rights of religion granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution," said Troast, a native of Boston, Mass., "and I would be bold enough to say that if that phrase wasn't in there, we probably would not be in the military.
"Our primary function is to ensure the free exercise of religious rights for sailors, marines, airmen, the military in general, and in my case, the Submarine Force, is met. Our sailors, marines, and coast guardsman go to places where they can't just go to their respective place of worship, so we bring it to them."
Troast, like every Navy chaplain, is required to facilitate the needs of every member's religious needs, regardless of their faith.
"We aren't called to violate our own beliefs in any way," said Troast, "but by policy, training and professionalism, we make sure that all the faith groups present have their requirements met in some way, shape or form as possible, especially in an operational environment."
The Department of Defense does not endorse any specific religion, but it recognizes more than 900 faith-based non-profit organizations, represented by more than 200 different denominations of chaplains.
"One of my roles as the force chaplain is to do a needs assessment of the force," said Troast. "My own personal philosophy is that I don't want anyone left behind. I don't care if it's just one person or two people. If their religious life or spiritual life is important to them, it's a mission-readiness issue. I think every submariner deserves to be able to practice their faith the best way they can, and the best way we can meet their requirements, especially on deployment."
Although he is the first force chaplain in 15 years, he doesn't feel like he is starting anything new.
"The key thing is the lay leader program," said Troast. "To be honest, I think it is more important in the Submarine Force than anywhere else in the Navy because submarines never have chaplains on board."
Troast plans to standardize the program throughout the force so that sailors' religious needs are met the best way they can be. "If a chaplain or a religious programs specialist wants to exceed the identified minimum requirements by adding their own flavor or pizazz, that's great! Good on them," said Troast.
"You don't have to be religious to see the chaplain," said Troast. "If you just need some counseling or some coaching, that's for everybody. I always remind everybody from the commander down to the seaman that they have 'privileged communication,' which means that whatever is discussed privately stays private."
Troast is one of more than 60 UCC clergy serving the U.S. Armed Forces as active duty or reservist chaplains.