Bishop for Armed Forces hosts Russian Orthodox delegation

November 19, 1998

Building on a close relationship built over the years, Bishop Charles Keyser, suffragan bishop for the Armed Forces, welcomed a delegation from the Russian Orthodox Church for an October tour of military installations and prison chaplaincies in the United States. "This is just the latest step in an on-going cooperation, the response to an invitation to my counterpart, Bishop Savva, to take a closer look at the chaplaincies in our church," said Keyser, who took a team of American chaplains to a high-level consultation with Russian military and church leaders in 1995.

Two years ago, Keyser and Savva visited American and Russian peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. "Just as our forces were brought together by Christ in the task of peace, so we were brought together by Christ in the task of peace," Keyser said after the joint visit. In an interview with the Armed Forces Network in Bosnia, Keyser said that the trip was "a great symbol" of a new partnership. Keyser issued his invitation to Savva for the US visit at the conclusion of that trip. After the Bosnian visit, the two bishops reported to Patriarch Alexy II in Moscow who expressed his deep gratitude for the partnership with the Episcopal Church as "we are still creating our chaplaincy." The patriarch said, "This is a new ministry for us-but it is a very important and necessary work."

Ministry to a troubled military
Beginning with stops at St. Vladmir's Orthodox Seminary in New York and St. Thomas' Church in Manhattan, the party flew to Jacksonville, Florida, to meet with leaders at the Naval Air Station for a briefing on ministries to sailors and their families. 
The Russians expressed particular interest in how the chaplains cared for those who were experiencing emotional distress, financial hardship and family stress-severe problems for a Russian military experiencing severe dislocation in the wake of political and economic difficulties. "Bishop Savva expressed his concern for the suicide rate in the Russian military, which he attributed to a sense of despair and confusion over the future of the military," said the Rev. William Noble, assistant to Keyser for health care ministry. He said that the base chaplains explained how they dealt with mental health issues.

Following the tradition of the Navy, the delegation were piped aboard the destroyer, USS Carney, and taken on a tour by the commanding officer. At a Naval air station, the party visited three typical Navy chapels-Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. As they have on previous occasions, the Russians expressed curiosity about how it was possible to maintain theological integrity while cooperating across denominational lines. Driving across the northern part of Florida, the group visited a federal prison in Tallahassee, accompanied by the Rev. Jacqueline Means, assistant to Keyser for prison ministry. The Russians expressed particular interest in prison industries, staffed by the inmates, which provide income and self-esteem. In Russia programs for education and vocational rehabilitation are still in the early stages of development.

Teaching moral values
At Fort Benning, Georgia, an installation known for its infantry training, the chief of staff briefed General Major Nicholai Boyko, deputy to the commanding general in charge of training in the Russian Army, a member of the delegation. According to the briefing, most of the soldiers come from single-parent families and the staff has shaped a unique program in teaching moral values. "In the training units every day begins with a story that highlights a value exemplified in the life of a soldier," said Colonel John Latimer. "Then during the day, the drill sergeants return as appropriate to the value portrayed in the story." The group toured a Family Life Center that provides family counseling for soldiers and their families and trains a number of chaplains for this special ministry on other installations. Keyser's office may sponsor a Russian priest to study the center.

At the United States Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the bishops were given an orientation briefing on the work of the school-especially its methodology for creating chaplains out of civilian clergy. Russian chaplains are not part of the military structure, usually serving parishes near the bases. In a new building at the school dedicated to communications technologies, the delegation saw the latest and finest electronic technology and got a closer look at some uses of the Internet for ministry. Despite a hectic schedule, "Savva and his delegation had a chance to see a slice of America he's never seen before," said Keyser. "By taking advantage of some opportunities for good, old-fashioned American hospitality, they saw the human side of our country-and they felt very much at home."

--James Solheim is the Episcopal Church's director of the Office of News and Information.