Christian Leadership to Change the World
Regent Leaders in the World: Military Chaplains
CBN.com In the post-9/11 world, extraordinary circumstances are daily fare for military chaplains. For Delores Stanley, a major in the U.S. Air Force, these circumstances have included everything from serving as chaplain to the Thunderbirds air demonstration squadron to ministering to wounded airmen returning from Iraq. “The Thunderbirds met every morning,” she says, “and called on me for words of encouragement and prayer.”
At Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, the calls for prayer came at all hours, from a different sort of hero. “One night, when I was asked to go out to meet the wounded,” she remembers, “the colonel warned me it was going to be ugly. I’d done hospital visits, funerals—but when I got there, I had to take a deep breath. There were all these cots, one on top of another. There were 40 wounded that night—some with broken bones or bullet wounds, some unconscious, one they thought was surely going to die.” Stanley talked to them all, prayed with them all—or just listened to them without words. “I was there to encourage them,” she says, “but they touched me so profoundly.” And she was there to help them any way she could. She recalls it took six people to carry each cot to the bus that would transport them to hospitals: “I asked the colonel if I could help carry them. I couldn’t just pray and leave. Afterwards, I went back to my car and wept. Those soldiers blessed me.”
For a congregational pastor or priest, ministry is generally the spiritual care of a community of people of a specific faith tradition—leading them in regular worship and through life-cycle events. The role of a chaplain, in contrast, is to minister to people of all religious beliefs and affiliations, often in extraordinary circumstances. Whether it be in a hospital or hospice setting, a school, a prison, a mental institution or even a parliamentary assembly, the chaplain’s role is a ministry of presence, where the needs of the other can be at odds with the chaplain’s own beliefs.
Stanley explains that the faith traditions of today’s military men and women range from mainstream Christianity to Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca. She’s even encountered Satanists and atheists. “The military doesn’t discriminate,” Stanley says, “and neither do chaplains. I don’t have to agree with them to minister to them.”
She recounts the story of an avowed atheist who came to her office seeking counseling for marital problems. “These people just need someone to listen to them,” Stanley says. “I told him I respected him, but I asked him if I could pray to my God for him. And he said yes.” Stanley concedes that as a Christian, it can be difficult not to pray in Jesus’ name, but she say, “As chaplains, we have to be sensitive to all beliefs. It took me some time to get there.”
Lt. Stephen Zachary, a U.S. Air Force chaplain, agrees with Stanley: “I’ve learned that every soul asks questions that deal with eternity, morality, truth and love. I want to minister to all of them. However they answer those questions and live those answers, that’s their religion—whatever they call themselves. I always tell them that in my construct, it’s Christianity, but as a chaplain, I am always sensitive to their beliefs and needs.”
Zachary, who is stationed at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., encourages those who come to him to think of him as a sort of Google search engine: “I try to help them put everything in focus by discussion and study. I want to give them guidance and bring stability to their lives.”
Like Stanley, Zachary has seen the wounded. He’s also been on casualty assistance calls. “It’s a very reverent situation, a holy moment to be charged with the care of people who’ve lost a loved one in combat,” he says. “We know we can’t identify with them in that loss. We show them respect and mourn with them.” In such moments, it matters little to a chaplain what faith— or lack of it—the bereaved embrace. “I just rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me in those moments,” Zachary says.
It’s all about incarnational ministry. “I learn about people of other faiths so I can witness to them effectively,” says Cmdr. Raymond Houk, deputy chaplain, U.S. Naval District Washington, and senior Navy chaplain, Arlington National Cemetery. “The common goal of all chaplains is to take care of the people we work with. We love them where they’re at.”
Houk continues, “One of the best things about being a chaplain is that you minister to these people no matter what their spiritual needs are. When there is spiritual pain, background doesn’t matter.” Houk says that he’s never met anybody who had no faith at all. “Everybody believes in something,” he says, even if he or she doesn’t know how to define it. And Houk has never had anyone refuse his offer of prayer.
One thing all three chaplains agree on is the commitment of today’s young military men and women. “They’re driven by a great sense of idealism,” says Houk. “They want to right the ills of the world.” Stanley emphasizes the point: “These young soldiers are so faithful to this country. They’ll do anything for it.” And Zachary agrees. “They are sober and valiant, and just as courageous and willing to sacrifice as previous generations.”
All three chaplains acknowledge the conflicts faced by men and women of faith who are sent into war. “They don’t think of them as holy wars,” says Stanley. “And neither do the chaplains. But we all focus on what our Commander in Chief tells us to do. We made a vow; we raised our hands. And we stick by that.”
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