My “church” is not composed of a typical congregation. Rather, it is comprised of a multitude of faiths: agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, and more. It is in this multi-faith, pluralistic environment that I live out my calling as a Christian chaplain. It is both challenging and rewarding.
Currently, our team of chaplains at garrison St. Jean consists only of a mix of Christian faith traditions. This presents a challenge when a military member comes seeking information on a faith other than Christianity. Given that we work for a government institution that recognizes religious diversity we are not allowed to proselytize. Thus, we provide literature and encouragement to them to do their research. I have wrestled with the implications of this: am I turning away a soul who needs to hear the Good News? How do I exercise my faith in this environment? How do I live it out? There are no easy answers. This is the challenge of working in a multi-faith environment.
There are numerous other challenges in this milieu. Attendance at chapel on Sundays varies given the transient nature of basic training; and for many military members, attending a religious service is simply not a part of their life experience. Fortunately, this is not necessarily a hindrance. The entire base is my “church,” and I am not restricted to my office, so I can see them on a daily basis. In fact, there are many opportunities for pastoral conversations while practicing ministry of presence, or as I have also heard it called, “loitering with intent.” Many significant exchanges have occurred when I leave my office to go and spend time in hallways, parking lots, on an obstacle course in the scorching summer heat, during a sweaty 13 km, 55 lbs ruck sack march with full kit, on a weapons range during a freezing snow storm, amid the tranquility of a beautiful forest, and during intense physical training with people 20 years my junior. I earn their trust when I share in their experiences, and when I take the initiative of seeking them out.
No one is obliged to bare their soul, and often individuals feel more comfortable keeping their private struggles to themselves. Among the instructors there are the non-commissioned members (NCMs), such as the master corporals and sergeants who train the recruits and dispense wise advice, and there are the officers, the captains and majors, who oversee the training and provide direction. Many of these people have years of service and often several tours overseas. They may have many stories to tell, and perhaps questions that preoccupy them from time to time, but typically they are more reserved.
Recruits and officer cadets, on the other hand, are unabashedly forward in sharing how they are doing and the stress they are experiencing. Perhaps it is simply an indicator of their generation, many of whom share intimate details of their lives on social media. Or perhaps it is because I am not yelling at them. They get yelled at so often as part of their training, it must be a relief when that stress is removed.
Sometimes, a recruit will ask discreetly if I have a moment to talk privately. Many are young and often this is their first time away from home and loved ones. The bulk of these conversations focus on difficulty adapting to military life and homesickness. The stress of basic training, plus any other unresolved emotional burdens they may be carrying around, often causes emotions to be very near the surface. It is in these moments, when a complete stranger tearfully unburdens their heart to me because I wear the cross that I can feel God at work. These are powerful moments: holy, sacred and special. It is an honour and privilege to be invited into the intimate life of a person who is searching for help. It is a tremendous responsibility and extremely rewarding to help someone find a way forward.
Of course, some choose to persevere through training without ever coming to see “the padre” for a troubling issue. Others make frequent return visits. I recall one recruit who tragically lost a loved one while in training. The standard operating procedure in such cases is for the recruit to cease training and spend time with their family on compassionate leave. Unfortunately, that means the recruit must leave their training platoon and wait in a holding platoon until there is an available space to begin all over again, which can be weeks or months later. To many recruits, this can seem like a lifetime. This particular recruit was able to attend the funeral on a weekend and spend a little bit of time with her family to grieve but she refused to quit training. This was a mid-life career change for her; there was no turning back to her old life. She came to see me and another padre a lot during her 12 weeks of training. She was tough, but not invincible. No one is. But she was resilient and made it through her training.
As pastors we often don’t see the results of our work. This is probably for the best otherwise we might begin to overestimate our sense of importance in God’s salvific plan. In this case, the recruit reached out to thank me. About a year and a half after she had graduated I received a thank you note from her, telling me that she was doing well. I still have it.
On the days when it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, when I hear of yet another military member committing suicide, when well laid plans go awry, when I can see it in the recruit’s eyes that they just don’t want to hear what I am gently suggesting to them, when personal circumstances threaten to rob me of my joy, I could lose momentum. However, I know the work I do is important. God has called me to pastor to a unique church replete with “unchurched” Canadians. His love and care for me remind me to share the “nourishment” I have received from Him with others who are spiritually hungry and need to hear the Word of God. After all, it is His work, not mine. I am so thankful for the opportunity to participate in this adventure.