Mel Baars: Room for all of us
It is in military chaplaincy, perhaps more than anywhere else in the religious world, that people from every theological background are thrown together and forced to find a way forward, an Army chaplain says.
Nothing about seminary had prepared me for this. For three years, I had been one of many women studying for a divinity degree at Duke Divinity School. In fact, more than half of my classmates were women, and regardless of gender, almost all the students shared a similar understanding of theology and Scripture, pretty squarely within the bounds of mainline Protestantism.
Imagine my shock when, a few days after graduation, I arrived at Fort Jackson, S.C., for my basic training as an Army chaplain. Of the more than 150 students in my class, most came from religious traditions very different from -- and far more conservative than -- mine. Only four were women.
Any anxiety I felt on my arrival was confirmed hours later when we all boarded a bus to go to an event off the base.
“What are you doing here?” one of the aspiring shepherds asked me. “Women aren’t supposed to be chaplains.”
It was my first real desert experience.
In those early days, I confess, my attitude toward my new chaplain neighbors was far from loving. When forced, I could croak something that sounded civil, but I made it my mission to have no friends.
Pride is a powerful emotion. How could I embrace people who didn’t welcome me? In this sea of the unfriendly and unfamiliar, I was adrift, alone in my lifeboat. I soon realized, however, that unless I found a way to become a part of the group, I would quickly sink.
That first training experience -- officially called the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course -- was exactly 40 days. Looking back, I see that even that was significant, for this was my own version of the wilderness.
Like my Israelite ancestors, I complained a lot. I buried my head in the sand, refusing to see the manna that God provided despite my ingratitude.
But also like the Israelites, toward the end of the journey I learned new ways of community. With imaginations reshaped by our training, I and my peers, despite our radical differences, became more willing to embrace each other.
The night before we graduated, my squad -- the Army’s version of a “small group” -- went to a local Chili’s to celebrate. As we broke bread together, I saw my companions in a new light.
Yes, they were still conservative evangelicals who disagreed with me about almost everything. Yet because of our time together in the desert, we shared more than our disagreement. We now knew one another intimately, and somehow that knowledge helped us transcend our theological differences.
During the meal, one of my colleagues, a new chaplain who had been one of the most vocal opponents of women in ministry, told me about the imminent birth of his first child, a daughter, and his excitement and fear about the prospect of becoming a father.
He showed me her ultrasound photo and, with tears in his eyes, confessed that he hoped she might one day be like me -- in his words, “strong and sure, a willing servant of God.”
I never knew if he officially changed his mind about women in ministry, and I could wait the rest of my life before he would ever tell me. But that wasn’t important. It was his acknowledgment and acceptance that really mattered. In our role as chaplains, the Army had room for both of us.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference hosted by my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The speakers were erudite and the audience progressive. Yet although it was an excellent program, I kept feeling as though something was missing.
In one of the last sessions, a female seminarian talked about how she had been hurt and insulted when a Baptist student suggested that her gender should have disqualified her from serving on an ecumenical committee.
“That’s it!” I thought. As much as I sympathized with the speaker, her comment reminded me of what was missing from our gathering -- people from a wider circle, voices of faith from all places on the theological spectrum.
As an Army chaplain, I was used to colleagues questioning my presence. But their disapproval was not the end of our collective story. After months of working together, experiencing and supporting one another in the throes of ministry, those same doubters often had a change of heart. After all, the Army ensures that soldiers from every religious background may practice their faith and be led by capable chaplains who can create an appropriate sanctuary.
It is in military chaplaincy, perhaps more than anywhere else in the religious world, that people from every theological background are thrown together and forced, because of our Constitution, to find a way forward. I can’t imagine a more pertinent challenge for the church today, especially when so many denominations are struggling to address these same issues.
Six years after basic training, I have been assigned to recruit new clergy into the Army Chaplain Corps -- especially the ones we need most, women and theological progressives. I admit that I enjoy working with colleagues who look a little more like me or don’t challenge my interpretation of Scripture at every turn, but this is not the reason for my focus.
Like the United States today, our armed forces are far from homogenous. An ever-diverse Army needs an agile chaplain corps that can meet a wide range of religious and spiritual needs. More women than ever are joining the military, and with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” gay service members have new freedom to be open about their sexuality.
Each of these groups has specific needs that only some chaplains are willing, or even able, to address. As the military takes steps to respond more effectively to incidents of sexual violence within its ranks, female chaplains are arguably better able to counsel and support women soldiers who have been sexually traumatized. If a gay service member wants to be married by a chaplain -- which is one of the services that military chaplains provide -- he or she needs a chaplain from a tradition that recognizes same-sex marriage.
For every frustrating moment I have had as a female Army chaplain, I am strangely grateful. Just as the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” or the same of the head to the feet, I have learned how much I, too, need these other members.
They have made me more ready to become all things to all people, which is what chaplaincy is really about. It takes arms stretched wide, reaching out to our farthest bounds, to welcome all and ensure that not even one is left behind.
In order to meet the needs of our sons and daughters who have come home from a very long war, it’s going to take the whole body -- every last one of us.