How “Open and Affirming” has impacted my ministry thus far

Army, Chaplaincy

So, it’s not been quite a month since I posted my little sign on my door.

My emphasis on inclusivity has had an interesting, though anecdotal, impact on my pastoral care. I’ve noticed that those coming to see me have “gotten to the point” faster than in the past.

I don’t know if other chaplains or counselors have experienced this phenomena but it’s been true of my pastoral care wherever I’ve been a chaplain and even more so in prison. It goes like this: the individual requests an appointment. They come into the office and we spend significant time in the “joining process.” We talk about what we have in common, where we’ve served, likes/dislikes and theology. We do this gentle dance where I ask about what we’re there to talk about and they, passive/aggressively talk about everything under the sun but what they are really struggling with. I sense this, probe, and sense that they are not quite ready. It used to frustrate me but I’ve come to understand that it’s just their insecurities bleeding to the surface. If I try to rush it, it just gets worse. So, patiently, I wait till they trust me.

That’s the thing about trust – I can’t convince people that I am trustworthy – I can only be trustworthy.

This goes on for the majority of the hour then, after I note that it’s been a great talk and we can schedule another appointment – boom! Out it comes. The real issue. The deeper presenting problem. The shameful secret. Then, we’re out of time and I am in the position of choosing to address it or wait till next time.

Generally, I ask why it took so long. The answer is almost universal – they were concerned that I would judge them. That I would condemn them. That I would “think they were crazy.” It’s so normalized for me, I’ve come to expect it and plan for it in my pastoral counseling.

What I have noticed in the last month is that the “flash to bang” time has been less. Much less. I not only hung the sign on my door but also in the direct line of sight with those who sit in my office. There has been this neat moment when it catches their eyes and they read it. Silently. Take a deep breath and we get to the meat if the issue so. much. faster.

This last Sunday, I preached on the subject of how the Christian interacts with the world. I worked with the story of the Samaritan woman. I asked my congregation if Jesus judged the woman. Of course not. He said what was true for her but not in a condemning or humiliating way. He does not seem to have a need to call out her sin and make sure that she sees it. Of course, it is an assumption on our part that Christ considered the five husband thing a sin. He simply says what is true and she perceives that she is in the presence of a prophet.

Sometimes, we’re so intent on “taking a stand” and “calling sin, sin” that we miss out on the relationship that is forming. I challenged my prison congregation to focus on the “love the sinner” part and let the Holy Spirit take care of the sin part. I wondered what relationships we miss out on because we’re so committed to calling out the speck in our brother’s eye. I wondered what blessings we were missing out on because we refuse to interact with those whose charges we do not like or choices we do not approve of. I wondered what the “other” might have to say to us that would give us hope and encouragement but we were so bent on them “knowing where we stand” instead of just loving people for people’s sake.

I ended by reading my little sign.

After the service, (there were two) no less than ten different inmates wanted to know more about the Disciples of Christ and the response was overwhelmingly positive and affirming. In both services, inmates who know me and those who didn’t were coming up and thanking me. Clearly, it was water to thirsty souls.

Coming Out as Inclusive.

Army, Chaplaincy, Open and Affirming

It would seem that a post about this would be completely unnecessary in the pluralistic world of the Army Chaplain Corps. It would seem that the directive to perform one’s own faith and provide for all the others would make such a statement redundant.

Only it’s not.

Somehow, this needs be said.

So, I am going to say it: I am a chaplain for ALL my Soldiers. All of them. The gay ones. The straight ones. The fat ones. The skinny ones. The conservative ones. The liberal ones. The religious ones. The non religious ones. The connected to church and the far away. The reason driven and the faith-based. The agnostic and the Christian. The pagan, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the whatever-you-happen-to-believe right now. Everyone I can think to mention and everyone else.

All means all.

This last summer, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to call all Disciples Congregations to be a welcoming people of grace to ALL God’s children. All is given as “race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective.” Seems patently obvious but then, if we were all doing this already, such a statement would be unnecessary. This is my answer to that call.

A call given by my church but heard by me as a call from God.

I’ve been ministering in this way for well over two years now. I thought it sufficient to just ignore it and not really say anything. I thought it best to let people believe what they wanted about my ministry and be pleasantly surprised when they found out that I didn’t judge them (this is after they got the courage to come into the office for counseling). Over and over I heard my Soldiers, inmates, and family members vocalize that they didn’t expect me to be understanding. They would say something like, “frankly, I was worried about coming but you are different from other chaplains…” Still, I didn’t want to “put it all out there.”

“After all,” I reasoned, “if I make it too well known, I’ll just be labeled as the one who is “ok with the gays” and it’ll be all anyone thinks about when my name comes up. It’s just not that big a deal to me. I minister to everyone but surely, that’s a given.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met those with HIV because there was no safe place to identify as gay so they went to where they could and it was not safe. I have met those who ran from the church only to come to the Army for a sense of community and get rejected yet again. I’ve cried with those who finally say the words out loud, “I’m gay and I can’t tell anyone.” I’ve heard the stories about walking past the Chapel and in isolation, thinking about suicide but thinking there was no one inside who would help them.

It is not enough to just minister by word of mouth.

In a world where state legislators are literally passing laws that would allow them to refuse service to my fellow Soldiers (and everyone else) simply because of their orientation – it is not enough to be silent.

As a chaplain, I do not have a church to challenge with the Open and Affirming process, but I certainly can be exactly that – Open and Affirming.

I’m not saying this to be reactionary or a contrarian. I do not speak for anyone else but me.

I am saying this for the Soldier who is alone and thinks the world has rejected her because of who she is.

I am saying this for the Soldier walking by the chapel thinking that there is no one in there who can hear his pain and not judge him.

I am saying this for the spouse who, in shame, does not feel like he has anyone to turn to because of what he thinks about himself.

I am saying this for the parent whose gay child has just joined the Army and they are so worried that he’ll be abused for who he is.

I am saying this for the chaplains who also are “in the closet.” Truth is, they feel as I do but do not want to say it out loud and experience other chaplains reject them for interpreting Scripture differently from them.

I’m saying this for me. I’m saying this because if one of my children came out and was in the Army, I hope they would have a chaplain that would help them process what they are going through without judgment or condemnation.

I’m saying this for all those I have known, closeted and not, who have experienced great pain because the God they know and love is represented as doing the opposite.

From now on, this sign will hang on my door as a message to all the Soldiers, family members, and other chaplains I run across in my career – You are welcome.

Sign