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United Methodist military chaplains gather in Nashville

By Sandra Brands*

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A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose

An Army chaplain's cap, topped with a cross, rests on a table.
Oct. 10, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- Members of the military who served in Iraq are welcomed home, but they often find their homes are not the same, said a seminary professor at a gathering of United Methodist military chaplains.

"The church should make sure returning military find homes," said M. Douglas Meeks, the Cal Turner Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. Meeks spoke about what it means to be a United Methodist chaplain, the public expression of religion, just war theory and the Catholic-Evangelical heritage of United Methodists.

The Sept. 22-24 gathering was sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Retired Bishop Robert Fannin of Lakeland, Fla., and Saul Espino, a board executive, planned the event.

The group included 51 active and reserve United Methodist chaplains serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Veterans Affairs. Participants ranged in experience from a seminarian to retired colonels.

Which God?

"We are in a more religious time than ever," Meeks said. He noted that we hear references to God everywhere, but he asked, "Which God are we talking about?"

Answering his own question, he said: "We name God by naming Jesus."

Meeks noted the difficulties of getting people who disagree to come to a common table. He suggested the chaplains tell stories and publicly live out their faith.

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The Rev. Patricia Barrett
The Rev. Patricia Barrett, assistant general secretary of the board and supervisor of the endorsing team, said the gathering provided the chaplains with an opportunity to learn from and to support one another.

"This gathering was a powerful reminder that these chaplains are ministering in wartime, caring for those in harm's way while they are themselves in harm's way. Wartime ministry is spiritually, intellectually and physically challenging, and we are committed to providing the resources to care for and equip our chaplains in spirit, mind and body," Barrett said.

"It was a wonderful opportunity to meet and talk with United Methodist colleagues from across the service branches," said the Rev. Karen Meeker, Army chaplain.

Calling cards appreciated

Chaplains and their families applauded local churches that supported them during deployments. Chaplains gave servicemen and women more than 9 million minutes' worth of phone cards contributed by churches.

The Rev. Tom Carter, a retired Army chaplain, preached Sept. 23. Carter, the interim director of endorsement at the board and a veteran of 28 years, charged the chaplains not only to feed the poor and tend to the sick, but to offer in word and deed the eternal hope found in Christ.

Later that morning, the clergy formed two groups to discuss the challenges and opportunities of being United Methodist military chaplains. The two groups discussed ways in which chaplains can minister to people of all faiths.

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Bishop Robert E. Fannin
One group noted that chaplains face a challenge of relating back to the local churches. A proposed solution was to ask local churches to adopt chaplains and their families.

At the closing worship, Bishop Fannin spoke of serving two years in the demilitarized zone in Korea. He also described visiting a Rwandan war zone as a bishop. After a harrowing ride dodging bullets, he arrived at a church in the middle of a combat area. Bishop Fannin said he found an undeniable hope in a Rwandan congregation packed with believers in the risen Christ.

He said their songs were not ones of despair. They knew God's "eye is on the sparrow" and that God cared for them, he said. "In the midst of life's darkest corners of this world," the bishop said, "chaplains bring this hope and light to those in oppression."

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, (615) 742-5470 or

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United Methodist Endorsing Agency

United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry