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09-09-09, 08:03 AM #1
Former Marine is first Army Buddhist chaplain
Former Marine is first Army Buddhist chaplain
By Bob Smietana - The (Nashville) Tennessean
Posted : Tuesday Sep 8, 2009 21:46:37 EDT
When Thomas Dyer heads to Afghanistan in December, the former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor won’t take a rifle with him. He won’t take a Bible, either.
Instead, Dyer, a Tennessean National Guardsman from Memphis and the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the Army, hopes to bring serenity and calm, honed by months of intensive meditation.
That preparation, he says, will help him bring spiritual care amid a war zone.
“We’re going to put it to the test,” Dyer said.
Dyer’s deployment is another step in the U.S. military’s attempt to meet the diverse spiritual needs of America’s fighting forces. It’s no easy task.
For one thing, the military chaplaincy is facing all the complications that have affected American religion over the past 40 years. The decline of mainline Protestants and their aging clergy. The ongoing Catholic priest shortage. The explosion of religious diversity. The emergence of people with no faith. The ease with which people move from one faith to another.
The military is trying to adapt to these changes, while trying to find ministers willing to serve in a war zone, and who can minister to American troops without offending Muslim allies.
Chaplains say they are up to it, saying their “cooperate without compromise” approach allows them to serve soldiers of any faith. But critics wonder if the whole enterprise is doomed to fail.
Military chaplains have cared for the souls of American troops since at least the 1700s. In 1775, the Continental Congress agreed to pay chaplains $20 a month. Gen. George Washington told his commanders to find chaplains of good character and exemplary lives to care for the souls of their troops.
The first chaplains served a mostly Protestant military. Chaplains today serve in a remarkably diverse environment.
The latest report from the Defense Department tracks 101 faiths for active-duty personnel, from 285,763 Roman Catholics to the one member of the Tioga River Christian conference. In between are Baptists, Jews, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Mormons and Wiccans. About a half a million active personnel are evangelicals. Almost 281,710 claim no religion.
No military has ever tried to meet such diverse spiritual needs, says Doris Bergen, a history professor at the University of Toronto. In World War II, the British army had thousands of Hindus and Muslims in its ranks, but only Christian and Jewish chaplains.
“To build a military chaplaincy that reflects the incredible religious diversity of Americans, and that supports that diversity in a meaningful way — it’s uncharted terrain,” Bergen said. “It’s completely brand new. You don’t really have any models to look to.”
That means chaplains such as Maj. Darin Olson at Fort Campbell maintain a delicate balance.
In chapel services, he’s a Nazarene minister. That means preaching about Jesus. Once services are over, he becomes an advocate for every faith group.
“I am here to guarantee the religious freedom of every soldier,” Olson said.
No evangelizing allowed
To help meet with the religious needs at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border, a new multi-faith chapel is under construction, to be used by smaller groups such as Jews and Wiccans. Funding is pending for another $15 million, 1,200-seat chapel also in the works. There are now seven chapels at the base — six at least 50 years old, the other built in 1990.
Staff Sgt. Clayton Wilhelm works as a chaplain assistant at Fort Campbell. A reservist, he spent parts of 2007 and 2008 in Iraq, and is now doing another year of active duty. He and other chaplain assistants set the chapels for worship services and order equipment for a variety of groups on base. Those include Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Muslim, pagans, Greek Orthodox and other Protestants.
Wilhelm, a Southern Baptist, says he’s just doing his job.
“There are some things I don’t agree with, but in my position, I am not allowed to not support someone because of my own beliefs,” he said.
Chaplains and their assistants also serve as a listening ear for soldiers, as they deal with stress.
Sometimes soldiers’ concerns are spiritual; other times they are more mundane.
Those small concerns become heavier to bear when soldiers are in war zones. If they are distracted by worries about their family back home or by religious concerns, then they can’t keep focused on their mission, Olson said.
“A soldier’s soul in combat is important,” he said. “A soldier who is not right with the Lord, or maybe the soldier is having marriage troubles back home, a soldier who feels that they are not able to talk to anyone — if they can talk to a chaplain, they are going to be a better soldier.”
Chaplain Steve Blackwell, a Tennessee native who now serves as an Army chaplain recruiter in Los Angeles, said a chaplain’s job is not to evangelize.
“The doctrine of the chaplain corps is to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” he said.
While they can share their faith with the willing, they are not allowed to push their faith on those who are not interested.
That’s important because the military can’t always match the denominations of chaplains with those of the troops they serve.
Diversity is a challenge
For example, Catholics make up 20 percent of the Army, but there is a shortage of Catholic chaplains. Only 7 percent of chaplains are priests.
So Catholic chaplains are constantly being deployed overseas, with little downtime. And servicemen and women don’t always have access to a priest when they need one.
“They come face to face with who they are and what they believe,” said Lt. Col. Carleton Birch, spokesman for the Army Chief of Chaplains Office. “And sometimes, often, they choose to become very serious about their faith. And if there is not a priest to service them, then a priest won’t be there at a critical time in their lives.”
By contrast, some faith groups are overrepresented among chaplains. For example, there are 54 members of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America in the military, and 22 chaplains from the denomination. That’s one chaplain for every 2.5 church members. By contrast, there’s one imam per 353.5 Muslims, and one priest for every 1,086 Catholics. And there are no chaplains to serve the 3,214 Wiccans in the military.
Recruiting chaplains from diverse faiths is a challenge, in part because the recruiting system favors Christians and Jews.
A potential chaplain must have a master’s degree in religion. But some faiths, such as Buddhism and Wicca, don’t have seminaries, so they struggle to find chaplain candidates. Dyer qualified as a chaplain because already he had earned a master’s degree as a Baptist pastor before converting to Buddhism.
Chaplains also need to be endorsed by a civilian religious group. The Department of Defense has approved few non-Christian endorsement groups.
In the end, Bergen, the Toronto professor, wonders if creating a diverse chaplain corps is possible
“You need to have chaplains who can minister to everyone who is under their care,” she said. “So if you are injured or dying and you need counseling or you want to pray, there has got to be someone there. And whether they are Jewish or Buddhist or Catholic, or Wiccan, you have got to feel comfortable with them.”
Then there’s the E-word. Military regulations place strict limits on evangelism. Chaplains can’t try to persuade people to change their faith. But they can try to convert the unchurched, provided that a soldier lends them a willing ear.
Things get tricky when chaplains push their faith.
Blackwell, the Army chaplain recruiter in Los Angeles, said a chaplain who pushes his faith too hard will eventually fail.
“I am as evangelical as they come,” he said. “And I am not going to shy away from the chance to lead someone to Jesus. But if someone comes in and they see every soldier as a potential convert, they are not going to last long as a chaplain.”
Compassion is the key
Back in Memphis, Dyer meditates and prepares to be deployed.
He’s already been in contact with soldiers overseas. Once word got out about the new Buddhist chaplain, he was bombarded with e-mails. He’s already done one wedding for a Buddhist soldier who has returned home, and offered spiritual direction over the phone with an overseas soldier.
Dyer said he’s ready for whatever comes. And he believes being knowledgeable about Christianity and Buddhism will make him a better chaplain. Most of all, he wants to be there.
“If I have a Church of Christ or more conservative soldier, he certainly does not need to know about dharma or things like that,” he said. “But if he is in pain, or his child back home is sick, I need to be compassionate and help him through that moment. We both need to forget at that moment that I am a Buddhist.”
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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