Chaplains provide 'listening ears,' 'tender hearts'

12/2/2008

By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service

TOKYO —The Rev. John Lea is a senior officer in the U.S. Navy and a chaplain through The United Methodist Church. Now stationed in Tokyo, he wakes up every day, wraps himself in John Wesley’s mantle and places tomorrow in the Lord’s care.

Chaplains care for the hearts and souls of the soldiers while other military commanders oversee their physical and mental preparation.

"My job is to load the wagon, not worry about the horse," said Lea, a clergy member from the church’s Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.

Before coming on active duty in 1986, Lea was pastor of a small church in Porter Republic, N.J. 

"I’m a captain by rank. I’m a chaplain by calling and ordination," he said. "Right now I am the Naval Forces Japan Force chaplain on Rear Adm. James D. Kelly’s staff. I’m responsible for chaplains across Japan, Singapore, Korea and Diego Garcia."

Lea said chaplains fulfill three key roles in the life of the military. They serve as symbols of God; they provide listening ears for personal struggles; and they offer hands of comfort on matters of the heart.

"As representatives of God we have a profound ability to remind people of the divine, of the otherness of God, of the Spirit," he said. "I think that we provide an ear for people who oftentimes have nowhere else to go and no one they think they can trust with some pretty deep personal struggles.

"We have that tender heart that is different than what they find in the military from the line officers. And the line officers have a huge responsibility for the nation, for the defense of the country. Our job is different in that we’re looking to the spirit."

Lea said chaplains remind their flock that "God loves you. I love you. And I’m here to represent that profound truth to you in ways that are different than other officers."

The Rev. Scott Shafer also serves as a Navy chaplain in Tokyo. A clergy member of the Arkansas Annual Conference, Shafer was serving Good Faith United Methodist Church in Pine Bluff before coming on active duty. He now shares responsibilities with five other Protestant chaplains and one Catholic for the Chapel of Hope at Command Fleet Activities Yokosuka, a U.S. Navy base in Japan.

"I no longer minister to as many blue-haired ladies as I minister to blue-shirted young men and women," he said. "As a United Methodist, I am considered a liturgical Protestant. ... That basically means I baptize babies and have communion a lot.

"I spend much more time on ministry than I was ever able to spend in the parish, but have less time for sermon preparation than ever before," he said. "I won't even go into how much PT (physical training) I have to do every day to stay in shape."

Shafer, who is white, was first assigned to the chapel's gospel praise congregation, which is predominantly African American and Pentecostal and includes whites and Asians.

"If I was in the states in my annual conference, I doubt that a bishop in his right mind would have appointed me to head that congregation. But here I was able to lead that congregation. … When I started attendance was around 120; when I left it was around 250. So it was a wonderful experience that I don’t think I would have had in the parish."

Both Shafer and Lea agree The United Methodist Church is well-suited to provide pastors as military chaplains. The denomination currently has 139 active-duty chaplains and 200 more in the reserves and the National Guard.

"I see our Social Principles enacted every day in the Navy," Shafer said of the church’s statements of belief. "There are no excuses. There are people of different ages, nations, cultures and races all working together toward common goals."