Chaplains in Tumultuous Times

By: Katherine Marshall

May 4, 2017

A family member asked in some bewilderment why on earth I posted a photo on Facebook showing an officer of the Fairfax County Police Department looking intently at a figure holding a Hindu holy book. The answer? I was fascinated by an event where I was speaking earlier this week: the 11th Annual Inter-Agency Chaplains Conference at Fort McNair in Washington DC. It brought together a mix of military chaplains from each of the military branches as well as public safety chaplains (police, fire, EMS) and other civilian chaplains from around the National Capital Region and beyond. My photo showed an opening Hindu prayer.

Co-sponsored by the Joint Force Headquarters-National Capital Region Military District of Washington and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the event’s central topic was “Civil Unrest to Civil Discourse: The Chaplain’s Role. It centered on crises and disasters, real and hypothetical. Chaplains share the weight that falls on first responders of many kinds. They also contend with some distinctive characteristics this diverse group share: one participant observed that it is rarely altar boys (or girls) who are attracted to such work: it draws people who think, for example, that jumping out of airplanes, driving fast, and other risky enterprises are fun. Their struggles are thus imbued with similarly distinctive and complex reactions and needs.

I discovered an active network of civilian and military chaplains and other religious and community leaders. Many knew each other well as they have participated in bi-annual chaplaincy conferences for the past 10+ years. They had lots to talk about, and plunged right into discussing the difficult challenges they face as chaplains: how to be apprised of and understand what is happening, and to be present so they can make a difference. Passionate discussions were primarily about the chaplain’s role in local, regional, and even national events and civil unrest (Baltimore, Ferguson, around large marches that take place in Washington DC). Some such situations involve confrontations and evidently at times spell trouble. They appreciated nonetheless the chance to frame some of these situations in a global context, seeing local troubles through the lens of larger forces at work.

From beginning to end, the discussion came back to the rather complex definition of ”the chaplain’s role”. The word chaplain essentially refers to a spiritual representative attached to a secular institution. I had not realized the wide range of roles that fall under this category. The US military employs some 3000 chaplains, whose primary mission is to serve service members and their families. But they also contend with the after effects of conflict, which include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and “moral injury”. Chaplains come in many forms, ranging from police department employees who focus on the welfare of police officers to volunteers with less defined roles. Community chaplains may answer to varied institutions. And there are different roles in different jurisdictional fire departments and other public institutions that respond to emergencies of many kinds.

This group clearly shares a sense of kinship, even as they are keenly aware of situational and chaplaincy differences and ambiguities in their roles. Chaplains employed by a police department, for example, respond through the line of command, as do military chaplains, but they may also find themselves metaphorically standing between the lines in a conflict. They may be formally asked to respond primarily when there is a death or suicide or to give an invocation at an event. But they see the spiritual effects of civil conflict and polarization and feel called to help.

The conference has become a solid a tradition, a community that meets twice a year. The topic this time seemed to strike a particular chord, focused on topics that were immediately relevant for the chaplains. They seek with some urgency support and inspiration in the face of current societal anger, violence, and incivility. A recurring theme was listening and dialogue: how can you help a stuck relationship to come unstuck? From the particular chaplain’s vantage point, how can they advance that goal? Another recurrent theme was a faith that underneath it all, even when there are harsh words and violent action, there are shared common hopes and visions. I rather appreciated a call on those who showed more grey on their heads to serve as “elders” and “not just people who are old”. Another common call was a broad admonition to tense or rioting Americans: “c’mon guys, we’re better than that.”

Where the “wall of separation” between state and religion runs in the United States is an endlessly debated question. Focusing on the roles of chaplains helped to ground this discussion in practical and obviously important ways. The chaplain’s core objective is to provide spiritual comfort and support to those who bear burdens because they are on the front lines of disaster, violence, emergencies, and tensions. But this special group, who might be seen as standing right on that proverbial wall, have responsibilities and perhaps special insights because they must see both sides. I was convinced that it makes eminent sense to listen to their views.

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Chaplains in Tumultuous Times