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Military chaplaincy ‘awesome experience’

FORT DRUM, New York, (BP)–Fine sand and blinding dust swirled across the Iraqi desert, providing cover for U.S. Army soldiers to advance deeper into enemy terrain. The lead Humvee inched cautiously forward. The soldiers on point radioed to a support group behind them — and asked for a chaplain.

James White, a Southern Baptist chaplain appointed by the North American Mission Board, answered the call.

“We’re scared,” the soldiers told White when he joined them. “Could you take a few minutes to pray with us?”

“We all knelt there in the sand and prayed,” said White, who is a colonel and garrison chaplain at Fort Drum, New York, home of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.

Moments later, the soldiers heard movement dead ahead, but could see nothing but a curtain of sand. Heading back to the support unit, White awaited the impending battle.

The soldiers later told White that after he left they all spontaneously began reciting the Lord’s Prayer aloud. They drove slowly toward the noise they’d heard — and suddenly met a Russian-built T-72 tank. The battle was on.

That’s hardly a routine event in the life of a chaplain, but whether the warfare is military or spiritual, White, who was called to active duty in 1985, acknowledges that a chaplain’s ministry can be very demanding.

White recalled one season of his ministry: “I was averaging three weddings a month and at least one grave side memorial service, sometimes three or four. I was pastoring [an Army post chapel] of about 200 people, teaching a weekly Bible study, coaching baseball, working on a family advocacy case management team, co-teaching an anger management class, plus I was providing religious support to about 1,100 people on that post, and was as busy as I could be.”

During that year, White spoke at a world missions conference where someone asked him, “‘Have you ever thought of going into full-time ministry?'”

White, who served as a pastor before going on active duty, tactfully told the person he didn’t think he’d have the strength for full-time ministry if that would mean taking on even more work than he already had. “She spoke what is often the case: people misunderstand how busy a responsible chaplain is,” he said. “I’m doing three times the work I did when I pastored in the local church.”

Most of White’s work days begin well before sunrise and last at least 12 hours, sometimes longer. Additionally, he has responsibility for leading the 45 chaplains at Fort Drum. “I’m the senior chaplain on post, so I give mentorship and guidance to every chaplain,” he said. “I oversee all the religious support that occurs on this post. It’s a great responsibility and a joy to serve.”

The chaplain’s ministry, however, is much like a pastor’s, White added.

“The needs are the same in the local church as they are here — just the daily circle of life: having children and raising them, paying bills, dealing with cancer and the death of loved ones, stress in the marriage, all those things. But then you add the stress of war, and of sending your spouse to war, and dealing with the feelings of your children; all of that is here,” he said. “Yet I remain a pastor with a Bible on my desk and a prayer in my heart for the person who walks in my office. And when people come to my door, I want there to be no mistake that they are coming to a pastor, a Christian pastor.

“I love what I do because I’m fulfilled in my calling as a pastor,” said White, who is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “And when I retire from the military, I will go back to the local church. My calling is to be a pastor. I’ll never abandon that call.”

White’s responsibilities include working across denominational lines and with followers of other religions, which means he “must perform or provide religious support for everyone; that’s my mission. I don’t compromise who I am in any way. I will not compromise. I will either perform the ministry myself or, if there’s a conflict in my conscience, I’ll find a representative of that church or faith group and allow them to do the work. However, my calling hasn’t changed as pastor. I’m pastoring God’s flock. I still use my Bible,” he said.

White said one of his most difficult duties was leading a memorial service in Iraq for three soldiers killed in the line of duty. After the service, he noticed another soldier, barely 18 years old, walking away in tears. He caught up to the young man and learned he had just graduated from high school with one of the fallen soldiers. The young man fell into White’s embrace and wept.

“I saw the fear in his eyes when he told me, ‘I just can’t do it. I can’t go back out there,'” White said. He prayed with the grieving, fearful soldier, “who could have been my grandson, and he did go outside that wire on the next mission.”

When he came back from Iraq, White said he felt mixed emotions about his own grandsons.

“I wanted to see them, and I didn’t want to see them,” he said. “Our world is a dangerous place. And my grandsons look up to Grandpa. I love those boys with all my heart. I hope they grow up to be men and do the things that men need to do to be a man. They like to play army, and that bothers me. The thought of having to bury one of those boys just weighs so heavy on my mind.”

White credited his wife, Leta, with helping him come to grips with his feelings. He noted that she serves as a ministry assistant: “We both have a calling to this career,” he said, noting that his wife works with soldiers’ wives to mentor and encourage them as their husbands are away at war.”

Leta White co-teaches a marriage and family group with her husband and leads a women’s Bible study.

“I provide a support group for them, because they give a lot of themselves — they give their husbands,” she said. “Unlike a church — where staff purposely reaches out to the lost and decides what other ministries and programs they want — ministry is always at our doorsteps. We spend a lot of time praying for each other, caring for each other, loving on each other, being there when one is sick. I’ve helped wives move. I’ve helped them deliver babies. I’ve been there when they had to hear some really sad news, or when they had to hear other, difficult things.”

Being a chaplain’s wife “is a calling,” she explained. “Most of the time in life, people do what they love, but we love what we do. How can you not when God is in the middle of it?”

Leta White said the greatest thing she learned when her husband was deployed in Iraq was “the Lord just taught me that He sure could take better care of Jim White than I ever could. It was a real spiritual eye-opener for me to learn that every day is about Jesus and letting Him take care of Jim. And that’s a peace only God can give, which sustains us each deployment Jim makes. That makes life a lot easier.”

But life isn’t always easy for a military chaplain, White noted. He recounted praying for a severely wounded soldier and sharing favorite Bible verses to encourage him. “All of a sudden, Romans 5:8 pops out,” White said. “‘But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.'”

The soldier, who was blind and could hardly talk in intelligible sounds, quoted the verse, too, White said. “He turns his body in pain and faces my direction and he says, ‘That touched me,'” White recalled. “I look over, and his father has tears running down his face … and he says, ‘That’s the verse that God used to bring our son to Christ when he was a boy.'”

White said one of his fondest ministry memories was an opportunity to preach an Easter sermon to soldiers in Iraq at Ur, the biblical home of Abraham — a place White calls “the birthplace of the Gospel.”

White preached by flashlight in the cool darkness of some excavated tombs, then led the soldiers outside into the sunlight. “We declared the joy of the resurrection,” he said. “There is a light, and we know the truth.

“Man, that was an awesome experience,” White said. “Easter Sunday morning in Abraham’s hometown, telling the Gospel to soldiers. It couldn’t have been better. Why would I want to be anywhere else?”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.

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