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From ships to desert cold, military chaplains serve 24/7

From ships to desert cold, military chaplains serve 24/7

Missions and Outreach
Cmdr. Steven Souders, a United States Navy chaplain, conducts a worship service with his platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, in Kuwait.

Cmdr. Steven Souders, a United States Navy chaplain and one of nine military chaplains affiliated with the Florida Conference, embraces his broad pastoral role, such as when he was serving with the Marines and his battalion was training “50 miles from nowhere” in the middle of winter in a southern California desert.

Cmdr. Souders conducts a "Blessing of the Fleet" ceremony as the District 17 U.S. Coast Guard Chaplain in Pelican, Alaska. Souders has served with the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard during his military career.

“It was cold and snowy,” he said.

One night, shortly after their arrival, Souders' commanding officer asked him to join the members of the battalion “when the night was the darkest and the cold was the coldest because that’s when I would be most needed,” he said.

It was a typical example of incarnational ministry, said Souders, who “went out after midnight in the snow and cold, moving from foxhole to foxhole, sharing hard candy, stories and prayers.”

Souders' commanding officer put him in the middle of their hardship and challenge because “that’s when and where it mattered most,” he said.

At times, Souders could literally find himself wearing different hats, with separate assignments to the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. But while the uniform may change, his commitment to providing spiritual guidance and emotional support never waivers.

With the U.S. military deployed in more than 150 countries around the world, including active combat in Afghanistan, his role is both vital and challenging.

Souders, an ordained elder in the Florida Conference, was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his work in 2011-14 as director of the Naval Surface Force’s Atlantic Ministry Center at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville. He now serves as command chaplain at Mayport.

Souders suggests that a good military chaplain will not remain detached from the service member who comes for help or spiritual guidance. Service members are expecting the chaplain to identify with their problem or situation.

“Since chaplains share similar burdens, situations, deployments and stresses, it is easier to identify with service members than most might expect,” Souders said. “Chaplains need to maintain just enough detachment to be objective and able to offer help and guidance, but do so in a caring and compassionate way.”

When an earthquake shook Haiti in January 2010, the humanitarian response was swift and thorough from nations and intergovernmental organizations across the globe. For weeks after the disaster, video on cable news showed one constant and highly visible foreign presence: personnel from all branches of the United States military.

Souders reported aboard the USS Bataan shortly after it reached Haiti. He was part of Joint Task Force Haiti, which was assigned to deliver humanitarian assistance and aid.

As senior Navy chaplain in Haiti, Souders' role was focused equally on supporting humanitarian activities and ministering to sailors and local earthquake survivors. Even with his experience as a pastor having done mission work in the Philippines, he was impacted by what he saw.

“The soldiers were very resilient and bounced back to focus on providing help. But you could not help but be affected,” Souders said. “The Navy had responsibility for the area east of Port-Au-Prince. There was massive destruction of property, many destroyed homes. There was a tremendous sadness among the survivors.

“As chaplains, we stand in the gap with service members during these stressful times and events, enduring the same separation and hardships they face,” he said. “We are incarnational with them, representing God—and they know that—which is what makes this type of ministry accepted and appreciated by sailors and their families, and also what makes it fulfilling to us as chaplains.”

A brass ship's bell on the USS Bataan shines. The vessel was used to deliver humanitarian assistance and aid during Joint Task Force Haiti following catastrophic earthquakes in 2010.

Serving as a citizen sailor

Souders crosses paths regularly with another Navy chaplain, the Rev. Timothy May, who was recently called to begin serving as the command chaplain in Djibouti, Africa (home base for Africa Command).

Cmdr. May has served on active duty or the reserves since 1999. As senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Fort Pierce, May says, from a reserve perspective, his greatest challenge is serving as a citizen sailor.

“It always seems that the moment that you have momentum going with your local church, you are going away for a weekend drill or a two-week active duty training,” he said. “It is important to have a great appreciation for the leadership provided by the laity of the church if you intend to also be effective as a Navy chaplain.”

May has served in a number of military assignments, including as a Quick Reaction Force chaplain following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

What makes serving as a Navy Reserve chaplain worthwhile, May said, is not only “being able to serve some of our country’s finest men and women,” but also “allowing some of our great citizens to contribute to the military. My congregation has been able to express appreciation and gratitude to these service members by their understanding of my call to serve and their willingness to let me go and serve when I am called upon, as in the case of this unexpected deployment” to Africa.

“It has been a real honor to hear the stories of our veterans because of my service as a Navy chaplain,” said May, reflecting on the fact that Veterans Day is Nov. 11.

Through deployment with other sailors in the tight confines of a Navy vessel, May says, familiarity breeds loyalty.

“The interesting aspect of being a Navy chaplain is that you are with your parish 24/7,” he said. "When it rains on the unit, it also rains upon you. In many ways, sharing the same hardships of military life makes it much easier to connect with people than in the local church. Having said that, it is difficult to detach.

“The key to successfully detaching is maintaining a good practice of daily spiritual disciplines,” May further observed. “It is important to take to heart Jesus’ words about remaining connected to the vine.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

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