Battle Chaps: Religious Ministry As Force Multiplier
By: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sara Eshleman
USS BULKELEY, At sea – “Stand by for the evening prayer.” The soft command arrives at the same time every evening. It’s a phrase Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bulkeley (DDG 84) have been hearing since day one of their seven-month deployment. Traditionally, the ship’s chaplain delivers the evening prayer, but Bulkeley does things a little differently. Each evening, a different member of the prayer team – a group of nine Sailors representing different faith traditions ranging from Judaism to Episcopalian and Buddhism – take turns reading a prayer; one they have selected or written but always personalized to share with the rest of the ship.
“For the evening prayer, I really enjoyed the opportunity to share the way that I like to pray with people,” said Cryptologic Technician (Collection) 1st Class Evan Chauvette, a member of the prayer team. “I like the fact that each person on the prayer team came from different backgrounds and had different prayers – they were very different styles and I appreciated that.”
The evening prayer is just one facet of Bulkeley’s unique command religious program. Each member of the command prayer team was personally trained by the ship’s chaplain, Lt. Phillip Webster, an Episcopal Priest – Father Phillip, affectionately known to the crew as “Chaps Wolfster,” brings a proactive approach to ministry that is robust, comprehensive and inclusive.
“He brought three completely different styles of religious celebration aboard the ship,” said Cmdr. Luis Angel Gonzalez, Bulkeley’s executive officer, referring to the different services Webster and his team of four command lay leaders provided throughout the deployment. “From the Friday Gospel service in a classic Southern Baptist style to a more traditional mid-week Catholic Anglican style, and weekly reflection and meditation groups, Chaplain Webster ensured variety in ministry. He embraced non-Christian faiths as well, working with our Buddhist community in delivering mediation and yoga, various forms of spiritual fitness across traditions, and led a Rosh Hashanah ceremony on the flight deck as the sunset. The experience here has been so diverse; it’s not just geared towards one subset. What really understates that is the diverse community that shows up to these celebrations – it is never just one particular religion or subset, it is a colorful tapestry of them all in mutual support and respect.”
Senior Chief Logistics Specialist Oscar Garcia, a command lay leader onboard Bulkeley. Garcia hails from the Rio Grande Valley area, Texas where he grew up Pentecostal in a predominantly Catholic community. Garcia, having led Contemporary Christian services throughout the course of Bulkeley’s deployment, enjoyed the exposure to other faith groups he gained as a result of his participation as a Lay Leader.
“Even on a carrier – my first ship was a carrier – I’ve never seen so much offered,” said Garcia. “I know it was probably there and I was just more junior and I wasn’t paying attention, but on TR (USS Theodore Roosevelt) we had three chaplains and they ran all the services and I just never really thought about it. But here, seeing laypeople – non-pastors – all get-together and help put together services…we have three services a week on the ship, plus we have bible study, plus we have meditation, and all different things going on here.”
In addition to the Rosh Hashana celebration, Ramadan, Shavuot, and Pentecost were observed – all geared toward celebrating the unique contributions of different religious groups and highlighting the values of diversity and inclusion within the US Navy.
“Even amongst Christianity, you have these diverse, different beliefs and things like that,” said Garcia. “And I think it was really cool to work with people from other faith groups including outside Christian faith groups – Islam, Jewish, Buddhist – different faith groups that are also involved in the religious ministry, and that’s a really cool diverse thing, to say ‘we have more in common than we have different.’”
Webster also introduced Bulkeley to the “Communion to Go” ministry, bringing Holy Communion to 30+ watchstanders each week, providing them spiritual support while they execute the mission, and as many chaplains do, Webster conducted confidential counseling sessions for those in need.
“Chaplain Webster has been a critical part along with our corpsmen, at identifying individuals that may have been showing borderline suicidal ideation behavioral patterns,” said Gonzalez. “We never crossed it, but they were going through bouts of depression where he was able to offer confidential services where they can just talk to him about what’s disturbing them – life on the ship, chain of command, problems with relationships. He provides that unbiased confidential resource for the Sailor to actually talk to.”
And perhaps the most unique aspect of Webster’s program is that it established the concept of Spiritual Fitness. The offerings delivered by the program, such as yoga and meditation classes, extended beyond the expected church services, emphasizing mind and body wellness. Training in emotional health and spirituality were delivered through multi-media formats in order to accommodate operational demands and to support families at home through social media platforms.
“It is a force multiplier,” said Gonzalez. “All of the things that the command religious program brings to bear quickly exceed religion. It makes more proficient warfighters – spiritually, emotionally, and mentally they are just better prepared to withstand stressful situations.”
“I think there will always be a need for it,” said Chauvette. “A lot of the things we do are foreign – eating at the galley three/four meals a day, sleeping in the berthings with tiny racks. Religious services provide us with that reminder of home.”
Bulkeley, homeported at Naval Station Norfolk, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa.