Episcopal chaplains bring compassion to war

April 8, 2003

(ENS) Two weeks before the first air strikes were launched on Baghdad, Bishop George Packard, suffragan in charge of the Episcopal Church's chaplaincies, reminded a gathering at the Episcopal Church Center that "when America goes to war, the Episcopal Church will go to war too"--in the person of active-duty and reservist Episcopal chaplains who accompany U.S. troops into battle.

Two weeks after war began, Packard was ready to expand on that statement.

"I think that when the nation goes to war, the Episcopal Church is called to go to compassion," Packard explained in an phone interview from his home, where he was catching up on phone calls to chaplains deployed overseas and their families stateside. "When the Episcopal Church goes to war, we don't gird up with weaponry. We gird up with even more of the things our Lord has taught us. We have to be very resourceful in how we apply these things."

It's Packard's job, and that of his office, to supply resources to those who minister "in harm's way," whether the harm comes from war, an act of terrorism, or natural disaster. These days Packard and the Rev. Gerry Blackburn, director for military ministries, are spending long days--and sometimes nights--in their offices, on the phone and in the air, at tasks ranging from making certain chaplains have a ready supply of freshly blessed Episcopal Service Crosses to practical assistance for their families.

It's all part of what Packard and Blackburn call their "Pastoral Support Mission," a 14-point plan for action in case of war or an act of terrorism on American soil. Priorities include supporting military and Veterans Administration chaplains, coordinating with congregations and dioceses to support military personnel and their families, updating resources available on the office's website, and distributing a new CD resource for congregations and clergy facing crisis situations. (It has now been sent to all Episcopal parishes.)

Ready to go

There are "about 160" Episcopal chaplains in the armed forces, Blackburn estimated. Of that number, 55 are active duty, full-time members of the Army Chaplain Corps, the Naval Chaplain Corps (which includes Marine Corps chaplains), and Air Force Chaplains Service. The others are Reserve, Guard, and Civil Air Patrol chaplains. Currently, seven active-duty chaplains are "in theater" in Iraq; of the reservists and guards, three are deployed and another three are awaiting orders.

The chaplains and their families are prepared for what lies ahead, Blackburn reported. "They've trained with their men and women, so they know something of what going into a theater of war means," said Blackburn. "I think only one, maybe two of the chaplains that are there have actually been in harm's way before, so it's new for most all of them. But it seems from our conversations with them that they are prepared.

"And equally, their families are prepared, as best anyone can be. We're sensitive to where they are, and we're providing pastoral care through listening, through prayer, just being supportive in any way we can to the families of the chaplains," Blackburn added.

"We are in the midst right now of calling those who are about ready to get on transportation to go overseas," Packard said. One recently deployed chaplain's wife, with two children at home, just moved into a new house, totaled the family van, and had to take her mother--who'd also just moved--to the hospital. Packard moved into action, locating a local Ford dealership to provide her with transportation until the van is repaired.

Symbols of sanity and normalcy

In the field, chaplains provide what the Air Force calls "visible reminders of the Holy," whose duty, as the Army puts it, is "bringing God closer to the soldier and the soldier closer to God." Noncombatants by law, they are not allowed to carry weapons or command troops, though trained--and armed--chaplain assistants provide security as well as liturgical assistance.

Military chaplains of all faiths are required to be sensitive to the religious pluralism of the armed forces, providing equally for the spiritual needs of the various faith traditions represented. (Even the Episcopal Church's Prayer Book for the Armed Services includes forms for the Roman Catholic Act of Contrition and a Jewish confession for the critically ill.) "Chaplains are taught never to proselytize and if they see any troops proselytizing, to caution them--doubly so in a Muslim country," said Blackburn.

They also serve as ethical advisors to commanding officers, applying the principles of just-war theory and providing updates on the spiritual health and morale of troops in the field. Episcopal chaplains such as Chaplain Jay Magness, head chaplain of the US Navy's Atlantic fleet, have been featured on shows such as PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program, talking about the challenges they and their parishioners in uniform will face in war.

Packard and Blackburn have already heard from some of the chaplains in Iraq by email. "I have just returned from Umm Qasr for a few days. I will return north from Kuwait to join the forces there through Easter," wrote Army chaplain Jeffrey Seiler. "I am very keenly aware of the responsibility that I and all chaplains in this theatre have to be the symbols of sanity and normalcy in a world that often does not make sense. The events here have had a way of stripping away all that is unnecessary and bring us face to face with ourselves and God.

"I buried 4 Iraqis killed in the war brought to me by the Brits I was with in Umm Qasr. I said Muslim prayers and Christian prayers over them after arranging the bodies so they would face SW toward Mecca. I gave a Quran in Arabic to an Iraqi man who was hired to work in the dining hall in the port facility who let me know he did not have one after the battle ther," Seilor wrote.

"I rise at 0415 to the sound of the call to prayer from the mosque across the street," reported Marine chaplain Jerome Hinson, on the staff of a Marine Corps lieutenant general in charge of supplying forward troops with fuel, food, water and ammunition. "While saying Morning Prayer, I wonder about how God hears the prayers I utter in concert with those offered across the street. A short while later I walk the 20 minutes or so it takes me to get from my quarters to our base.

"As I arrive, the Commanding General is in our office. He is conferring with my supervisory chaplain, a Navy Captain. The General wants some passages of scripture to reflect on as he prepares to write and call people who have had loved ones hurt," Hinson wrote. "One Marine has been wounded, his foot blown off when an Iraqi soldier who had surrendered had a change of heart. Another Marine had his face crushed in a vehicular accident. Our General feels their loss deeply. His Marines have been hurt and he hurts for them. His love for them is fierce. You will never see this reported in the news…What I do is not glamorous, but, it is, perhaps, holy."

'Can you separate the doer from the deed?'

Never far from their thoughts, or those of their chaplains, is the strong opposition expressed by church leaders worldwide to the Iraq war, from the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury to parish priests and congregational leaders.

"I think it's a strain right now," Packard observed. "When we were talking about just cause and getting ready to go to war, I was one of the biggest ralliers around 'let's do as many intellectual exercises around this as we can, let's really turn this inside out--that's our duty as the baptized to do so.' And I asked the chaplains to join me in that and share what they would about these matters of just cause for war." The results of that sharing are posted on the chaplains' office web site.

Now that the ground war has commenced, Packard thinks "the indicator on the dial has moved in a different direction." In one of his regular reflections on the web site, he wrote, "I worry about those who are fighting for us--not for their training or their courage--I worry about what we are saying to them. Maybe it's an imponderable but the popular 'support the soldier and not the war' phrase used by many comes across as odd to someone on the battlefield. Can you separate the doer from the deed? After a debate on foreign policy the days of falling in behind an administration as a united, loyal people may be gone but the result for troops in harm's way is not good."

"I come out on the side of the people that I minister to," Packard explained. "And I think our chaplains are feeling that strain too. We've had some very pointed responses from overseas about their worries about where we stand relative to that. Our chaplains are saying something to us back from the field, that we don't appreciate any fuzzy thinking about this. We're committed to finishing a job under less than perfect circumstances. I think getting it done, getting it done quickly, treating victims and innocents and for that matter those who surrender with compassion, connection with your buddies, and making sure that the level of warfare is proportional to the threat that we face [are the goals now]."

Peace is the destination

Packard's office sees the ongoing discussion of the justice of war--and the pursuit of peace--as part of its charge too, sharing that with other ministries at the Church Center. "In our office we get lots of emails and messages out there asking how to think through a position about the war. I think we have a ministry to tell others at 815 what our experiences are with helping people to do that," said Packard.

Packard has also been in conversation with leaders of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship about a paper on "just peace" to be presented to General Convention this summer. "The idea is that this is a peace church. We want to keep our eye on the ball here--we believe that peace is the destination. The difference for me is that there may be instances where coercive force has to be employed for the common good, for the protection of the vulnerable, as Augustine put it.

"Being the one superpower does create some new dynamics of ethical struggle," Blackburn agreed. "Even Archbishop Williams referred to that, that the US is the only country right now that's going to have to 'mop up' in certain world situations. I guess how we do that is the test for us."


--The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.