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Chaplains see seminary education as key facet of their preparedness

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–1st Lt. Virgil Thomas is battle-ready, but he fights only with the sword of the Spirit. A battalion chaplain with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, Thomas has received deployment overseas with the remainder of the division and may soon see combat in Iraq.

A recent graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Thomas answered the call to military chaplaincy out of his desire to fulfill his duty as an American citizen and a Southern Baptist.

Today he ministers to soldiers from diverse religious backgrounds. Chaplaincy in a multi-faith setting is challenging, Thomas said, and the challenges only increase in wartime.

“I am faced with soldiers of varying faiths as well as those who want nothing to do with religion,” he said, “but they want the hope that there is something more, and that is when I can tell them about Christ.”

That is precisely the mission of Southern Baptist chaplains, noted Chaplain Brig. Gen. James Spivey, former U.S. Army assistant chief of chaplains and a professor of church history at Southwestern.

Graduates from Southwestern and the five other Southern Baptist seminaries who enter the chaplaincy, Spivey said, are to be Southern Baptist ministers in uniform, committed to ministering and evangelizing in a military framework. Opportunities for evangelism occur when chaplains are fulfilling their charge, characterized by their motto. “The mission of the military chaplain is threefold: ‘nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead,'” Spivey explained.

Numerous alumni from Southwestern, for example, are fulfilling that role.

Maj. Rick Morrow, a chaplain with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, N.C., was in Afghanistan when several Green Berets were killed in combat earlier this year.

1st Lt. Charles Seligman, now an Air Force Special Operations Command chaplain in Florida, ministered to airmen and families from Hurlburt Field after plane crashes in Puerto Rico and Afghanistan.

Navy Chaplain Lt. Leemon Brown serves at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Army Chaplain 2nd Lt. Josh Llano serves at Fort Benning, Ga. Navy Lt. j.g. Robert Moore serves in La Maddalena, Italy.

Beyond serving as Southern Baptist ministers and counselors in uniform, military chaplains also have a constitutional duty to facilitate the free exercise of religion.

“Chaplains exist for freedom of religion in the military. It is my job as a chaplain to guarantee that right for every service member and their families. I provide ministry to those of like faith. For those of a different faith I provide for ministry. For example, I would not conduct a Muslim service, but it is my duty to find an imam that can,” Seligman said.

Providing ministry for others, however, often allows chaplains the opportunity to share their faith in Christ, Seligman said. Such was the case with a Wiccan he was able to lead to Christ. “Accommodating them in their beliefs provides us inroads,” he said.

Lt. Scott Callaham, a Naval Academy graduate now pursuing a Ph.D. at Southwestern, agreed.

Callaham, who noted that service as a chaplain provides “immediate acceptance” in every situation and “injects every moment with eternal significance,” served as a submariner before becoming a chaplain. God called him out of the “silent service” and today he serves as a reserve chaplain with Marine Air Logistics Squadron 41 at the Joint Reserve Naval Air Station in Fort Worth.

“Today we are dealing with a truly pluralistic society and, of course, as evangelical Christians we believe that the gospel always wins in the free marketplace of religious ideas,” Callaham said. “That is why I have followed the call to be a military chaplain, and I attempt to recruit as many people as I can to do the same.”

Southwestern offers a specialized master of divinity degree program for those who wish to enter the chaplaincy. The degree allows for specialization in military, hospital and corporate and institutional settings, and is intended to provide a foundation for future chaplaincy training in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force. Chaplain candidates then attend a chaplain school within their branch of service.

Thomas’ seminary education was a key component in his development as a Southern Baptist minister in uniform. He credited “first-rate instructors” at Southwestern for “their insistence that you think critically.”

“My time at Southwestern,” he said, “has grounded my biblical knowledge so I can apply it instantly to others, whether in peacetime or in battle as a chaplain.”

Thomas, Seligman and Callaham are only a few of the more than 1,000 alumni of Southwestern who have chosen to serve God through military chaplaincy since the seminary was founded in 1908. During World War II alone, 557 Southwestern alumni and students served as chaplains and in other capacities. Nine were killed in the European and the Pacific theatres.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: CHAPLAIN’S PREPAREDNESS and CHAPLAIN’S PRAYER.

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  • Gregory Tomlin