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At military mortuary, chaplain imparts life

DOVER, Del. (BP)–Readying herself to collect the remains of her husband from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a woman looks closely at Chaplain Klavens Noel and says the first thing that comes to mind.

“Chaplain, there are no words. No words to say in these circumstances,” Noel recalls her telling him. For Noel, however, the brief encounter is an opportunity to offer a glimpse of hope.

“God does all things well,” Noel gently responded. “Look to God for the silver lining in the cloud, so that we can move on and find out the purpose of all of this…. Focus on your faith.”

Rarely do family members of those killed in war show up at Dover’s gates, but when they do, Noel tries to convey the same message he lives 24 hours a day with nearly 100 personnel at the mortuary building where the war dead are brought to be identified, prepared, cosmetized, dressed for burial and delivered to their final resting places.

Instead of becoming hardened or desensitized, Noel said the environment “on the contrary, brings us closer to who we are.”

“It takes off the veil, it takes off the front that we carry in our life,” Noel said. “Now we become real, sensitive.”

Noel, a major in the Air Force Reserves, announced on Memorial Day weekend he was stepping down as pastor of the Haitian ministry at First Baptist Church of Central Florida in Orlando to serve a four-month assignment at Dover.

A native of Haiti, where his family practiced Voodoo until reached with the Gospel by Southern Baptist missionaries, Noel, 41, said he and his clan left the island nation to move to Miami in 1980 when he was 14.

By the time he was 19, Noel had accepted a call to ministry and began preaching. In 1998 he graduated from Miami Christian College and in 1993 earned a master of divinity degree from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary near Memphis, Tenn., and was endorsed as a Southern Baptist chaplain by the North American Mission Board.

After serving in the Army chaplaincy for a time followed by active duty as an Air Force chaplain, Noel and his wife Lucy headed to First Baptist Church of Central Florida after receiving a call from pastor Clayton Cloer, a longtime friend and classmate from Mid-America.

“He’s an incredible man,” Cloer said of Noel. “He brought exceptional leadership to our Haitian community as well as flexibility and strength to our staff.”

Cloer said the church gave Noel a standing ovation when he announced his decision to serve those who care for the fallen at Dover.

“[T]hey are there with all of the opening of the [body] bags. It’s unbelievable emotionally what they have to do,” Cloer said of Noel and the other personnel at Dover. “It’s an incredible, high honor.”

Noel told the Florida Baptist Witness he was a “little slow” in making the decision to serve at Dover but eventually had peace about the commitment.

“One of the things I thought about was, life goes on,” Noel said matter-of-factly in speaking about those to whom he ministers on a daily basis. “Even as people move up here to this location and this difficult situation, life goes on for them. They marry, they have children at home, the dogs need to go to the vet and different circumstances come up.

“It’s just a matter of being alongside of them and encouraging, reminding them of the holy in the midst of this.”

Noel and Chaplain Lt. Col. David J. Sparks are two of the three chaplains assigned to Dover’s Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs where more than 4,000 deceased soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen have been received from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

Sparks, a reserve chaplain since 1980, has been assigned to Dover for four years and plans to be in ministry there until September 2008. An ordained Church of the Nazarene minister, Sparks said he finally separated from his congregation in Hollywood, Md., after staying at Dover much longer than he initially anticipated.

In a letter to Noel’s home church, Sparks credited the younger man with having “unique pastoral skills” and thanked the church for his willingness to serve.

“Just know that your sacrifice is offered to God and to the families of our fallen heroes,” Sparks wrote. “Though they will never know about your sacrifice, we know, God knows and you know.”

Sparks also asked the congregation to pray for Noel:

“Would you pray that his spirit not be damaged by the constant exposure to the worst that war can do to God’s creation? … Would you pray for peace; a time when young men and women do not die in war; a time when nations do not rise up against nations?

“Would you pray too for the promised peace ‘in the midst of the storm,’ a ‘peace that passes understanding?'”

In an interview coordinated with Noel and Sparks through the Dover Air Force Base Public Affairs Office, Sparks said the environment in which they work provides a unique opportunity to be on the same team. The third member of the team is Chaplain Derrick Harris.

“We are co-pastors to a group of 100 folks, most of whom do not claim some denomination as their own,” Sparks said. “Most of the time we present a united front for the cause of Jesus Christ which in this environment is what I refer to as a very early stage of evangelism.”

Joking that denominational issues only come up during lunch when the men “argue for the fun of it,” Sparks turned serious when he said Noel “connects” in a personal way with nearly everyone he meets.

“There are some who we work with every day who are profane as far as you can imagine, and a chaplain must find a way to connect,” Sparks said. “Chaplain Noel is able to do that. It’s really cool to watch.”

Noel is able to have a spiritual conversation with almost anyone at a level unfamiliar to many Christians, Sparks said.

“It has to do with loving people, connecting with their story … building such a relationship that they will talk to you on a non-religious level because some of them don’t have any of that,” Sparks said.

And affirming Noel’s belief that “life goes on” even in the harshest of environments, Sparks said relationship, family, financial and religious issues are what’s on people’s minds.

“The mortuary is a difficult environment, certainly, and the work they have to do can be sad or horrific … but those are not the real issues,” Sparks said. “Those are temporary issues. … Noel is able to connect with them … in such a way that they will talk about those issues which then provide an open door in the relationship for moving small steps forward in the field of very early evangelism.”

Noel said when opportunities come — whether a trip to church or to the mall or beach — there’s an “open door” to better equip and encourage people and share Christ with them … even in a place where death is so prevalent.

“Death causes us to think about the immediacy of life, how short life is and what we can do in this life that will make a difference,” Noel said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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