There is a battle currently being fought right here on American soil. It isn't with guns or ships or planes, but with people and power dynamics. The current situation at the Great Lakes Naval Training facility is an indicator of this struggle--how and when does the U.S. military allow for the accommodation of religious freedom and expression for its service members.
On April 3, 2015 the commander of Naval Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill enacted a decision to cancel religious services being provided by civilian volunteer clergy on the installation. This decision affected seven minority religious groups, effectively dismantling a web of emotional and spiritual support for the trainees that walk through those gates. The decision was justified and cited to be in line with the naval instruction regulating the use of personnel for religious support by the commander of RTC: “In March of 2014 the RTC Command Religious Program (CRP) began a review of how best to respond to the religious needs of recruits at RTC and whether the command was following the guidance contained in U.S. Navy regulations, which sets a hierarchy for which spiritual leaders should be utilized: command chaplains, accredited uniformed volunteers, contract clergy, and then civilian volunteer, if needed.”
Several official responses to this decision have already been sent, including a letter from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL), claiming the violation of religious liberty rights on behalf of the trainees at RTC.
There is no argument that this decision is in fact a violation of religious liberty rights, but many are asking why the Navy would go to such lengths to deny minority faith groups the resources already in place for expression of their faith. I believe we are on a speeding train heading toward a cliff on this particular issue, and if it is not addressed quickly we will see very ugly consequences.
First and foremost, a discussion needs to be had on the purpose of military chaplains in uniform. I would like to borrow a statement from Ed Waggoner as it concerns a growing trend in chaplain dynamics: “U.S. military chaplaincies are at a crossroad. The bedrock rationale for the existence of chaplaincies is to provide for the free exercise of religion by rank-and-file military personnel. For the first time in their history, a significant contingent of endorsers and chaplains has recanted its professional responsibility to care for all personnel. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are entitled to all military benefits, including services provided through the chaplaincies. Chaplains volunteer for military careers of just such service. Unfortunately, some theologically and socially conservative Christian groups now cast themselves as victims of coercion and invert pastoral priorities: they insist that the military protect their religiously motivated refusal to serve all personnel. The chaplaincies are at serious risk of becoming strongholds of religiously defended discrimination rather than generous religious and moral service.”
Let’s dissect that statement for a moment. Military chaplaincy has been a centrally authorized function since 1775. It can be argued that the socially acceptable form of religious expression was overwhelmingly Abrahamic in nature, and Christian in particular. But as we have seen in the last half a century, alternative forms of spirituality and religious expression have become more mainstream and the U.S. military is a volunteer force of individuals pulled from American society. I feel Mr. Waggoner’s statement is apt (though a bit limited in scope) that the chaplain’s primary function is the support of all military personnel and their emotional and spiritual needs. Now, execution is an entirely different matter. In the civilian world, if your primary care specialist deems you need to see an orthopedist for example, they refer you to someone who deals with that. They don’t tell you you’re wrong for needing orthopedic treatment and try to convince you there is something else going on. This is how chaplaincy is also supposed to work. If a chaplain cannot meet the spiritual needs of a military service member, it falls on that chaplain to make the proper referral to someone who can. Hence, the introduction of civilian lay leaders and volunteers. These programs are essential for complimenting the spiritual outreach and effectiveness of the chaplain corps and actually work against the very argument most chaplains have about performing spiritual practices that are in direct violation of their personal beliefs. Cancelling the services at RTC is not only a clear violation of religious liberties for the trainees, but it puts undue stress on the staff to provide additional support they are either not comfortable or knowledgeable enough to provide. Additionally, we are setting the stage for a rise in possible suicide cases as well as drop outs due to stress and lack of emotional support. I cannot stand by the decision made by RTC, and as of now I do not see a functional reason for why it was made.
It seems a common topic of conversation these days that the world is pretty chaotic. We find so many things hard to understand - from violence in the name of peaceful religion, to laws which seem to increase suffering for some in the 'best interests' of others, or just decisions to which we can only stammer 'But... but... that's just wrong!' At heartfelt level, become intellect and rationality, we know this and are flummoxed that the other person cannot even grasp the possibility
The craziness of 'everyday' life is brought home to me often, largely because of my work as a Professional Priest. This brings two worlds colliding in a very real sense. The secular, normal, nuts-and-bolts life that generally allows for the concept of spirituality but with an undercurrent of nervousness, unsure how to engage with it for fear of offending - and the spiritual, soul-deep understanding that we are actually all humans muddling through some greater journey together, albeit with a similar suspicion that the 9-5 family-and-day-job is mad in its own way. Is one more important than another? Is one more real than another?
Howard Thurman wrote, "Community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers."
This quote by Thurman is helpful in my own reflection of the work I do as a chaplain. In the two years that I have worked as a chaplain I have provided care to a diverse group of people. First as a hospital chaplain in West Virginia and then as a hospice chaplain in Ohio. In these two years I have had the opportunity to provide care to two people who identity as Pagan. In both cases it was family of the patient; although in one case the patient was Pagan but unresponsive.
Some More Ways in Which Inmate Circles Differ from Civilian Circles
In previous blogs I’ve mentioned various differences and restrictions that affect how we can work and what we can and cannot do. We can burn candles and incense, and we have created a temporary temple space.
You have recently finished your education at Cherry Hill Seminary and you’ve been hired as a healthcare chaplain at a local hospital. The Director of Pastoral Care turns to you and says, “Well, since you’re the newest chaplain you get to preach at our bi-annual memorial service for all who have passed away at the hospital since our last service.”
You are sitting at an interview for a position as a staff chaplain at a prison. The warden who is interviewing you says, “I expect my chaplain to be the pastor of the whole prison community.”
You get a call in the middle of the night. A Catholic patient of yours is near death and the family can't find a priest to anoint the patient. You've been asked by the nurse at their bedside to attend to them.
Good advice for anyone interested in chaplaincy would be to suspend your sectarianism. Institutional settings that have chaplains need their chaplains dedicated to interfaith ministry. Chaplains need to be of service to all of those within their institutional setting. Suspending your sectarianism doesn’t mean sacrificing who you are as a minister, priest, or cleric. It means being open to diversity and being able to embrace that diversity to be of service to others where you find them. This means being strong in your own religious conviction. Your identity as a Chaplain should flow from your theology and that theology should be expansive enough to embrace the needs of others both within and outside of your tradition. Suspending your sectarianism means your agenda is one of service and compassion; and the person with whom the Chaplain serves sets the agenda.