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.

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