Sheparding faith on the frontlines

20 Apr 2004 | Staff Sgt. Timothy S. Edwards

A slight breeze rustles through the overhanging leaves and branches of a mango tree as the quiet hum of a distant generator permeates the otherwise silent morning.
Beneath these peaceful bows, a small group of men from a mixture of military services come together to share in a common calling.
As all but one of these men sit on a mixture of makeshift benches, folding chairs and sandbags, a bird dips down gliding below the tree’s canopy as if giving its blessing, then soars off.
Still standing, one of the service members addresses the gathering, “I am Lieutenant Clarke, the Regimental Chaplain.”
Navy Lt. Randall S. Clarke is the lead in the Marine Air Ground Task Force’s Religious Ministries Team here providing for the religious needs of service members with the Multinational Interim Force-Haiti (MIFH) deployed in support of Operation Secure Tomorrow.
“Being a Southern Baptist Minister, I am specifically here to take care of the needs of the Southern Baptists and Protestants in general,” Clarke stated. “But I am also here to facilitate the needs of those of other faiths as well.”
According to the Odessa, Texas native, he does this by providing access to chaplains of the other faiths by either locating a chaplain within the deployed members of MAGTF-8, locating a chaplain within the MIFH, or by providing lay leaders for those faiths that have no chaplain representation.
“I am a firm believer in the lay leader program,” he explained. “Lay leaders are the eyes and ears of the chaplain. They can identify needs and problems within the members of their faith and address them to the chaplain.”
Lay leaders are service members who have stepped forward to represent a particular faith group. Such service members in the Catholic faith are trained by priests and can handle the sacred host and provide services. Protestant lay leaders are trained by chaplains and can provide services, except for communion, when a chaplain isn’t available.
A good lay leader is the chaplain’s left hand, but his right hand is his Religious Program Specialist (RP). The RP is a sailor specifically trained to support the chaplain.
They do this by helping the chaplain rig and set up for services, take care of administrative matters and provide for the chaplain’s personal safety.
“The RP is a vital and irreplaceable part of the Religious Ministry Team,” Clarke said.
“Chaplain’s are people of God,” he continued, “but we are not God. We cannot read minds, and we can’t be everywhere at once.”
A good RP and lay leader can greatly enhance the ministry provided to service members. 
“They help the chaplain to better understand the needs in the command and to provide for them and address them with the command,” Clarke explained.
“They help us take care of problems at the lowest level,” he said. “Most of the time there is just the need of a friendly ear to listen.”
First, the setting is different. Most often, a church is not available to conduct services when a unit is deployed, so location of the Easter Sunday Service under a tree is not uncommon.
Second, these services are more like devotion, according to Clarke.
“Field services are very simple, it is more like a devotion with one thought to ponder,” he explained. “You want to find one point to leave with the service members for them to ponder on through the week.”
According to Clarke, services aren’t conducted to build “brownie points” with God. “It is to support and encourage each other in their faith.
“Services helps remind us that faith isn’t just one day a week, it is everyday,” he continued. “It reminds us that we have to stand up for what we know is right regardless of whether it is popular.”
According to Spc. Raheem R. Terry, field services help to keep the morale high and uplift service members.
“We are away from our families out here,” the Mounds, Ill. native explained. “By attending these services and staying close to God, we also stay close to our families in our heart.”
To many of the service members attending these services, the location and setting is of little concern.
“Everywhere you go you have God inside of you,” Terry stated. “You don’t need a church to practice your faith, just God in your heart.”
Another unique aspect of these services is the interaction with foreign service members with the Multinational Interim Force – Haiti. The service members deployed here are able to attend service with and receive ministry from members of these forces.
“What this does is allow them to see that God and the Bible transcends race as well as language,” Clarke said. “It allows them to see that it goes beyond political views.
“It also shows them that if one of our service members is hurt, a chaplain of one of the forces will be there to provide for their religious needs,” he continued. “If one of the other members of the (Multinational Interim Force – Haiti) was in need, I would be there to provide pastoral services, regardless of language.”
Ultimately, the religious ministry team is here to provide guidance and set an example in how to live life.
“I am here to teach and to set the example by the way I live,” Clarke explained. “I am not a good chaplain or pastor if I am not setting the example for those I minister to.”
As the morning service came to a close with the service members’ voices raised in song, the bird once again dips down beneath the tree’s bows then soars off into the distance as the last voice fades.
As if a whisper on the wind, “Amen.”