The United Church of Christ (UCC) has the most left-wing curia of any major denomination in America. Predictably, the UCC is also among the fastest declining churches in America. Seemingly more often concerned with politics du jour than affairs of the soul, UCC officials denounce the Iraq War, for example, about as often as Muslims pray towards Mecca.
In one recent blast, UCC prelates “repented” for not being even more militant against the war: “We confess that too often the church has been little more than a silent witness to evil deeds,” the clerics bewailed. “We have prayed without protest.” They went on to bemoan the war’s “arrogance and folly,” the “deceptions,” the confusion of “patriotism with self-interest,” and the complicity in the “bloodshed and the cries.”
UCC officials usually are not subtle in their rush to be more politically holier than thou. But as in the case of many mainline denominations, the pronouncements from a national church bureaucracy do not always reflect the reality of many local ministries.
To its credit, the UCC’s news service recently carried a report from Carol Pavlik about the UCC’s chaplains in the U.S. military, of whom there are about 60. Far from being political activists, the chaplains reassuringly seem focused on the Lord’s work in adverse circumstances.
“In spite of the cost, there are joys in this ministry,” reported retired U.S. Navy Chaplain John Gundlach, who heads the UCC’s ministry for government chaplains. “Being in there with others in some of the most extreme circumstances any person can endure, and helping to remind them of their humanity as well as the humanity of the enemy, being there to offer the assurance of God’s grace, to comfort the wounded and the bereaved, is a tremendous privilege.” Gundlach called the military chaplaincy a “truly high calling.”
The UCC report carried the stories of several UCC military chaplains. Army Chaplain Tony Ciomperlik, now assigned to an army hospital in San Antonio, served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He recounted ministering to over 700 combat soldiers in Tikrit. “My faith definition has changed since my return from Iraq,” said Ciomperlik. “I define faith as believing in God for what I cannot provide for myself. Faith took me through many mortar attacks and fire fights that broke out in the middle of the night.”
Ciomperlik remembered one ambush in the night. “I slipped out of my bunk onto my knees and began to pray, knowing that my soldiers were on patrol that night and now they were in harm’s way,” he said. “The fight lasted for about and hour and the next day a couple of the soldiers came in and told me how they were ambushed and almost lost one of their soldiers. We talked about the power of prayer and God’s protection for them and we prayed together.”
Later, Ciomperlik recalled, a military policeman named Matt teared up while seeking his counsel. “During a time when a convoy was coming in, several Iraqi terrorists fired upon the convoy and one individual fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at Matt and his humvee,” the chaplain remembered. The rocket bounced off the humvee and instead killed a 10-year old boy standing on the road. “Matt…said to me that he was prepared to see grown men with guns die but not a small boy,” Ciomperlik recounted. “I led Matt to Christ and baptized him a week later in the Tigris River.”
Connecticut Army National Guard Chaplain David Nutt was called into active duty last year. “The high points [of this ministry] come when a soldier ‘gets it’ that he or she can actually rely on Jesus Christ to help carry their burden when it gets too heavy,” Nutt reported. “I know that sounds trite, but it is true.” The chaplain said his military experiences had not caused him to question his faith at all but instead strengthened his reliance on God. “Too often as pastors we are prone to dip into hyper intellectual Jesus psycho-babble when all we have to do is merely arrange the meeting between Christ and his estranged children,” he said.
Army Chaplain Colonel Daniel M. Parker serves at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. “I’m the kind of person who likes to get out and about where the troops are, because I want to be with them, hear their stories, listen to their concerns, laugh with them, pray with them, hold worship wherever they are and help them in their pilgrimage as the multitude of others have for me, especially my God,” he told the UCC reporter.
“The high point of working with these dedicated women and men, brings me to reevaluate my own faith commitment.” Parker said. During the “summer surge season” the chaplains works 14 hour days, each covering as many as 2,000 soldiers. “”Surprisingly, they don’t complain,” he remarked. “But I see and hear their pain, their groans.”
Navy Chaplain Rob Heckathorne is currently on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard. “I strongly believe that God places his faithful where Christ’s ministry can be realized,” he recounted. “Though significantly older than the sailors whom I have counseled and loved (in most cases twice their age), my life experiences, my longevity in the parish, being a parent of similarly aged children, has proved to help me provide more effective ministry.” He told of the “blessing” of service during the tsunami and several hurricanes, observing the “exceptional integration” of the military and civilian communities, along with the “collegiality” among the military chaplains of different traditions. “I realize that for many young people with whom I connect, I am of the very first Minister of the Word and Sacrament that they have ever met,” the chaplain noted. “That is a great responsibility and opportunity.”
UCC Minister of Government Chaplaincy Gundlach noted that the military chaplains are often on deployment up to 15 months at a time. Last year, as reported the UCC’s website, and at the request of the UCC’s chaplains, he offered “prayers of intercession” for the chaplaincy.
“We pray for all of our chaplains, but especially for those who are deployed in harm’s way,” Gundlach said. “Surround them with your love in times of loneliness. Strengthen them to endure hardship. Give them courage in the face of danger. Help them to bear a faithful witness to you among those they serve. And when their duty is done, bring them safely home.”
To which all may say, “Amen.”