Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sharing the Love of Christ in Baghdad (Part 3 of 3)

[Continued from November 20, 2008; see below.] All throughout our conversation, U.S. Army Chaplain James (Lt. Col.) Carter (U.S. Army Chaplain (Multi-National Division – Baghdad and 4th Infantry Division) kept coming back to the service members’ families back home. He explained to me several ways that churches and individual Christians can help support and minister to U.S. military personnel serving overseas, even if they don’t know anyone there personally.

Not surprisingly, this church leader recommended that individual American Christians work with their local churches.

“It all starts with relationships, so the best thing to do is for people to work with their local churches,” he says. “A local church can sponsor individual service members, or a squad or platoon.

With all of the reserve and National Guard units involved in this conflict, nearly every church in America has someone in its congregation with a relative or friend who has served, is serving or will serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. (The fact that both of our recent vice presidential candidates had sons headed to Iraq points to the commonality of this experience.) Chaplain Carter says that those are the logical starting points for how to find service personnel to whom the minister.

“Get the names of the service members who would like to hear from members of the church. Write them letters… send them books and supplies… flood them with birthday cards and candy that they like… and pray for them.

Here is a well-written article about what kind of care packages to send to service personnel in Iraq (or other places).

He says to do the same kinds of things for the service member’s spouses and children back home. “Fifty percent of our military personnel are married,” he says. “Some of these guys are on their third combat tour in five years and half of them are on their second tour. That means that some of them have spent 27 of the past 39 months in combat [zones]. That is a major stress for those back home to have their loved ones ‘down range.’

“It is a huge relief on these guys to know that their loved ones are being cared for at home. Make sure their spouses are cared for and that their kids get birthday and Christmas presents. These de facto single parents are the real heroes. Dad [or Mom] is deployed, so they are left caring for the kids, doing the car maintenance, keeping the grades up and all the rest. Let them know that they are loved and appreciated for their sacrifices and for what their soldier is doing. They are the ones saying, ‘I will trust my husband [or wife] with you.’”

Churches can also minister to those who were wounded. “The wounded warrior ministry is huge,” he says.

Guest speakers

Churches that are near military installations or hospitals can invite unit and base chaplains to come and speak to their congregations for a few minutes on a Sunday morning about ministering to service personnel. Invite them to bring soldiers with them who have been overseas and impacted by chaplains' ministries to share with the congregation.

“And realize, also, that many of our chaplains are on their second tour of duty, as well,” Chaplain Carter continues. “Many chaplains come into the military a little older than traditional service members, and that going to Iraq is often a second placement in a second career. Compassion and ministry fatigue can be very are real, so it is important to minister to the ministers. And a good place for a church to start may be with its own denomination’s chaplains.”

A congregation’s veterans may be the perfect group to coordinate this type of ministry that Chaplain Carter describes. That group will find it easier than non-veterans to coordinate relationships with active military personnel, as they can often “speak the same language” and relate to one another’s experiences. “However, anyone who is given access to soldiers’ personal information will probably need to first pass a background check,” Chaplain Carder explains.

Deeply Blessed

“Right now, we are deeply blessed,” concludes Chaplain Carter. God is working. The battlefield is much calmer. That means that chaplains can navigate around the battlefield much better. And Major General Jeff Hammond [Commanding General of the 4th Infantry Division] is committed to the chaplains’ consistency and our troops’ spiritual fitness.”

Please consider seeking out service members who might be in harm’s way to love on with Christ’s love as they serve our nation and defend our values and way of life.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sharing the Love of Christ in Baghdad (Part 2 of 3)

In my last entry, I explained how I recently had an extended conversation with U.S. Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James R. Carter, a Presbyterian Church in America chaplain who is 12 months into a 15-month tour of duty in Baghdad.

Chaplain Carter (Multi-National Division – Baghdad (MND-B) and 4th Infantry Division Chaplain) is the senior U.S. Military chaplain in Baghdad, overseeing 70 other chaplains from all military branches and of all faiths, and he supervises the religious support program for 33,000 service personnel.

“We have a very robust chaplain program,” he told me in his humble but excited way. “At Camp Liberty, we have three chapels of about 150 seats each…like small churches. We have an amazing number of services in each, with services in all three all day long on Sundays. The chaplains serve 15,000 soldiers in Camp Liberty, and 33,000 in the Multi-National Division – Baghdad. It’s larger than I ever anticipated.”

Despite the need for good preaching in all of those chapel services, many of the chaplains are especially strong in relational ministries like pastoral care and counseling. Unlike church pastoring, which is heavy on pulpit preaching, program administration and organizational management, military chaplains live day-in and day-out with members of their flock.

“Most of our ministry takes place ‘outside the wire,’” he says, meaning outside of the safety zone of the fortified, heavily defended camp and throughout the streets of Baghdad.

He goes on to tell a story of a patrol convoy with which he recently rode. “The last thing that they do every time before they go outside the wire is that a sergeant recites the Lord’s Prayer over the speaker in everyone’s helmet. Here are these hardened warriors, locked and loaded and ready for action, stopping for prayer before heading out into danger. Usually, there is constant chatter on the headsets, but when he prayed, there was nothing else but dead silence. It was a deeply spiritual act.”

No Gospel Lite

Chaplain Carter says that he and his fellow chaplains go as spiritually deep as possible with their flocks. “We don’t do Gospel Lite,” he says with a combination of chuckle and stern-faced commitment. “We really dig into the deeper theological doctrines.”

“For some,” he continues, “deployment is spiritual survival. But others experience spiritual openness and vulnerability to God, and to other people of God. It’s okay to reach out on the battlefield. The soldiers understand that they must have a battle buddy on the battlefield, someone to watch their back. We tell them that it is the same in their spiritual lives… They need to have battle buddies there, too. So we really encourage accountability groups among the chaplains and with other spiritually mature groups. Those are in addition to the Bible studies and chapel services that we offer.”

Chaplain Carter explains that in addition to serving the U.S. troops, he and his team extend their reach out into the Iraqi army. And they have had some connection with the local indigenous church

“We have had multiple RLE’s, or religious leader engagements,” he says. “It’s a slow building process to interact with the local church, which is just starting to trickle back into Iraq. But we have had some ground breaking work with local congregations.”

He explains that local Iraqi Christian churched can function openly, within reason. “They can gather without fear, but most of them are very small,” he says. “But we must be sensitive when working with a local church. We’re primarily there to minister to our soldiers, but we can also facility reconciliation when possible.”

For example, the chaplains have been able working with their commanders and local religious leaders of different faiths to provide school supplies to local children. “But we must be judicious, sensitive and wise. And everything must be done appropriately,” he explains. “Not out of evangelizing, but to facilitate the greater good.”

Lt. Col. James Carter (far right), chaplain, 4th Infantry Division and Multi-National Division – Baghdad, sits next to Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, commanding general, 4th Inf. Div. and MND-B, and talks with members of the Killeen Muslim Leaders during a video teleconference meeting, July 22, 2008.

Hammond and Carter held the meeting to discuss ongoing issues between Muslim communities and the military forces in Baghdad, as well as gain insight from the Muslim leaders to help further current progress within the Iraqi communities. Photographer: Sgt. Jason Thompson, Multi-National Division Baghdad.

I still have one more day worth of comments to share about my conversation with Chaplain Carter. Check back on my next post to read what he says about how American congregations can support our troops and the chaplains who minister to them.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sharing the Love of Christ in Baghdad (Part 1 of 3)

“There are no atheists in foxholes.”

It’s still true, says U.S. Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James R. Carter, Multi-National Division – Baghdad (MND-B) and 4th Infantry Division Chaplain.

He would know, too. He has been an Army chaplain for 21 years, and is 12 months into a 15-month tour of duty in Baghdad.

I spoke with him earlier this month in Baghdad for well over an hour and asked him every question I could think of about his ministry there. Our conversation was fascinating – bordering on surreal – as he described a way of life and ministry that is unlike what most Americans experience. And yet while his stories and experiences held me captivated, Chaplain Carter was in every way transparent, genuine and accessible.

This is his second combat tour with the Army; his first combat tour was in the first Gulf War. He is the senior U.S. Military chaplain in Baghdad, overseeing 70 other U.S. Military chaplains from all branches and of all faiths, and he supervises the religious support program for 33,000 service personnel. In that role, he represents both his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, and his alma mater, Reformed Theological Seminary of Jacksonville, Florida.

With great candor, Chaplain Carter talked to me about things like how he and his fellow chaplains minister to battle-hardened soldiers in places as safe as a Sunday morning chapel service and as dangerous as at active battle sites, helping carry freshly wounded. “My chaplains have experienced incoming rounds, mortars and rockets,” he told me. “Two of them have been hit by IEDs, though, thank God, there been no serious injuries or fatalities.”

As part combat chaplain and part community pastor, Chaplain Carter told me that he and his fellow military chaplains minister in three ways: 1) nurturing the living through pastoral care and preaching/teaching in an military “operational environment;” 2) caring for the wounded at attack sites, medical aid stations and military field hospitals; and 3) honoring the fallen, showing proper dignity and respect at memorial services, and in facilitating healing for those who remain with messages of comfort, confidence in God and hope.

Tremendous Spiritual Openness

Chaplain Carter says that he and his fellow chaplains see tremendous spiritual openness in their military flock, “now more than ever as young soldiers search and ask questions.” Iraq includes or is near the cradle of Biblical civilizations, encompassing areas like the Garden of Eden (at the headwaters of the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers) and the land of Abraham and his ancestors (e.g., the city of Ur), the land of the prophets (Babylon and Nineveh) and others, all of which stimulate the soldiers’ questions and facilitate the chaplains’ teaching opportunities.

“Many service members do not come from faith-based homes, so they ask tons and tons of spiritual questions about Islam and Christianity, and the chaplains can answer those questions,” Chaplain Carter explained. “We see a lot of openness and searching, and our combat mission makes the soldiers more open… more vulnerable.”

When I asked if combat hardens his soldiers to spiritual things, he explained, “Not as much as you might think.” He went on, “Nearly everyone shows reverence and respect at spiritual moments like prayer and memorial services, even though there is often a natural anger and confusion at God and at the situation. It is easy to ask, ‘Why, God?’ in a situation like this. But that does not mean that they are hardened.”

In our conversation, we talked about the distinctives of chaplain ministry (including working with other denominations’ and faiths’ chaplains), and how it contrasts to local church ministry. “Our number one priority is to provide for the free exercise of religion for all faiths amongst the troops. We don’t proselytize, as we have a great diversity of people amongst the service members.”

But then he went on to tell the story of one soldier who recently approached him, saying, “‘Sir, I’m here. I’m looking for the truth.’ I was able to share the love of Christ with him, and see him accept that love.”

“Many of the soldiers I speak with are not seeking a congregation or chapel,” he continues, “but they do seek spiritual conversations, say, in a dining facility or on patrol.

“A pastor ministering in a local church can assume that 80% of his congregation are active, growing Christians. But of the soldiers I see, either in the field or in chapel, probably 30-40% are Christian, 20-30% are inquisitive or seekers, and 10-20% are in crisis needing comfort in a place that there are few places to go for comfort.”

“Working with other denominations’ chaplains teaches everyone to collaborate without compromise,” he says. “I have gained a broadened perspective on the Kingdom of God. God is much bigger than our differences. Our work forces all of us to focus on the essentials of the faith… to bring down the barriers, working together for the greater good of the Kingdom of God.”

Chaplain Carter and I discussed more than I can cover in just one blog posting. So I will stop here for now and pick up again in my next post.

In the meantime, click here for a cool article with even cooler photos about a Easter 2008 sunrise service in Baghdad where Chaplain Carter preached.

Still to come: partnering with the indigenous Iraqi church and how American congregations can support our troops and the chaplains who minister to them.