The chief of the U.S. Army Chaplains Corps delivered a message Tuesday to anyone worried about joining the chaplaincy during a pandemic: Uncle Sam needs you.
“If you’re in the pipeline, don’t be discouraged by the setbacks,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Solhjem, Army chief of chaplains, speaking from the Pentagon during a virtual town hall. “If you’re considering becoming a chaplain, please press on with that endeavor.”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the 244-year-old chaplaincy of the U.S. armed forces to react like a local pastor — hosting potlucks on Zoom, streaming online services and scrubbing March Madness boards for “Bible Madness” tournaments, he said.
But unlike a local pastor, imam or rabbi, Army chaplains face new challenges.
Tuesday’s town hall questions included worries about planning around assignments that could send chaplains to the most remote parts of the world, tracking down online learning for divinity degrees, and even staying physically fit to pass the Army Combat Physical Fitness exam required of personnel.
“You just got to find a way to do it,” said Regimental Sgt. Maj. Ralph Martinez, who also appeared at Tuesday’s town hall. “Find a good running route, utilize park benches. If there’s a rock or a hill that you can do some incline training on, there’re many ways you go to be creative and disciplined in yourself and get out there and do it.”
Earlier this week during a webinar hosted by the Brookings Institute in Washington, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said the Army would adapt to a “new normal” caused by the novel coronavirus, until a vaccine is created.
On Tuesday, Gen. Solhjem spoke about a spike in concern about suicide and depression among the ranks and how the chaplaincy can help soldiers.
“Whether there was a broken spirit that resulted from your faith journey or in your relationship with people, something relational is at the bottom thread of what’s behind suicidal ideations and thoughts,” said the Army’s chief chaplain, who is an ordained minister by the General Council of the Assemblies of God.
Chaplains were first recognized officially by the Continental Congress on July 29, 1775. Chaplains must have a master of divinity degree and an ecclesiastical endorsement by a religious group.
Chaplains represent various religious traditions: Gen. Solhjem spoke Tuesday of Ramadan, Passover and Easter services, as well as celebrations of Buddha’s birthday, all being led by Army chaplains over the last month.
The spiritual team at U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany noted 1,000 individuals tuned into a Sunday worship service in April — an increase from an average of 40 parishioners participating in person before the pandemic.
A chaplain at Fort Knox for Gospel Service at Calvary Church says hundreds of viewers have tuned into Sunday services, whereas attending in person usually averaged around 50 people.
Social distancing has not been without problems for chaplains, however. Last week, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation sent a letter to Mr. Esper to request that a senior Army chaplain be disciplined for sharing an evangelical book using his military email.
The Army charges its chaplains with missions of leading soldiers of hundreds of denominations in providing spiritual counseling and camaraderie to servicemen and women.
Thursday is National Prayer Day, recognized by Congress and signed by President Harry Truman in 1952. The Army has encouraged chaplains to find creative ways to reach enlisted people on Thursday.
“Wherever we are, we can pray,” said Gen. Solhjem. “That is something that doesn’t require an audience.”
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