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.

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