Jesus and the Centurion:
A Navy Chaplain's Story

Just after September 11 our Bishop invited a gathering of priests to share our losses and concerns. We talked of lives lost and the people who mourned them in our congregations. We pondered how to pray with people who were afraid. We wondered how to teach peace and inspire interreligious dialogue. Several among us expressed unhappiness with President Bush. And then a lone voice reminded us, with good nature, of his obligation to his commander-in-chief and to the men and women serving our country here and in Afghanistan. It was Mark Spaulding, an Episcopal Navy Chaplain. Weíve asked him to share more of his experience with the readers of Godís Friends. Dave Hurlbert conducted the interview.

—Donald Schell, Godís Friends Editorial Board

How is it you became a Navy Chaplain?

It started with the Franciscans. As a high school drop-out, I needed a place to go, and wondered, “Who would welcome me in?” From youth ministry in the Diocese of California, I knew Brother Philip, a Franciscan at Bishop’s Ranch in Sonoma. When I drove up there on my motorcycle, he said, “You can stay with us.” After I had some time to think, I said, “I’m not going anywhere; why not join the Navy?” In 1975 I signed a contract.

It was post–Viet Nam, just barely. I was a boiler technician; I made boats go. Back then the military were “baby killers,” and “slime-balls.” We had more than 600 ships and not enough sailors. Consequently, if you were convicted before a federal bench, you could do time or do the military. A lot of these guys chose the military. I was a drop-out from high school, and a Rhodes Scholar in Engineering compared to them.

Brawn ruled the day in this environment. “Beat the snot out of them if they don’t do what you tell them to do.” But I was a 90-pound weakling. The only thing I had over these guys is that I’m quick to learn, and I’m good with my hands. I could fix equipment they couldn’t fix

Now I see being in the Navy was part of my Christian journey, but I was a starving Christian. I couldn’t go to Mass because the Catholic priest would have brought charges against me, and the other Protestants were fundamentalist “Brothers in Christ.” So for three years on that ship, I was starving for the Sacrament, and I was starving for real community— where I would be accepted for who I was.

During my last year in the Navy, Father John Edwards checked on board. He was an Episcopal priest. Every morning, we met in the chapel at 6:00 a.m. to say morning prayer and celebrate the Eucharist. And we met in his stateroom for evening prayer at 5:00. Then we would talk for an hour, sort of like a 12-step program.

When I left the Navy in 1980 I worked for six months as an electrician, making huge amounts of money. I also volunteered as a youth minister at St. Paul’s Walnut Creek. After a while the Rector there offered me a full-time job. Eventually I went to college and divinity school.

Finally I said, “This is really easy, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. Maybe it’s time for a change.” Now I know that as a youth minister I’d experienced too much grief. For 18 years, I’d get a new group of kids, grow them up, move them through, and graduate them. And I couldn’t go through the grief of falling in love with another group of kids and then losing them. So I thought, What do I do? I’m a vocational youth minister and a priest. I know adolescents and young adults really well, and there’s a part of me that’s still a sailor. So I said to myself, “Go back into the Navy!”

The military is Youth Ministry 101. I know the culture, I know the kids, and to that I add the plurality of my experience; these things equip me for doing this role as Chaplain.

Whom do you serve as Chaplain? Men and women of all faiths?

Navy Chaplains are commissioned to serve everyone. But, typically, if you don’t talk the Chaplain’s game, you get kind of a minimalist approach.

About two-thirds of the military are Protestant Christian. The other third is Roman Catholic, along with a smattering of other religions.

The Christian community is mostly fundamentalists. The first sermon I heard a Navy Chaplain preach was about dinosaurs, which he proclaimed were a myth perpetuated by a liberal theology and a liberal academia. He said, “Dinosaur bones were planted in the earth by Satan, to confuse us Christians.” And this preacher, this chaplain, had the same level of training I did!

I think fundamentalists are drawn to the military because it’s a rigid system. In the officers and senior ranks it’s a whole different cup of tea, but for enlisted people especially, you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, or not supposed to do. Just do your job.

Do you take a different approach?

Sure. One time I had a young sergeant talk to me about life issues. In case the people who talk to me want to pray, I always ask, “Do you have a religious background?” This sergeant said, “Yeah,” but he seemed uncomfortable.

I said, “Look, I’m a priest. Your spiritual development is important to me.”

“I don’t think you’ll like my background.”

I said, “Try me.”

“Well, I’m an American Indian. I have an Indian religion.” He had no idea I’d spent summers on Indian reservations, building houses with teenagers, and learning about Native American spirituality, so I asked, “Do you have a spirit guide?” He was dumbfounded, and started to cry. “Sir, you don’t understand. I’m a sergeant in the Marines. I’ve seen five chaplains, and every one of them threw me out because I told them I have an Indian spirituality. And you’re trying to find me a spirit guide? No one’s ever taken care of me before.”

I said, “That’s my job as a chaplain.” There are a lot of people to be taken care of in the military, and one of the fun parts of my job is that I get to do it.

Doesn’t Jesus ask us to turn away from violence? How do these military men and women face their doubts about killing others, or dying themselves? How do you face these concerns yourself?

As chaplains we have it easy, because I’m not allowed to carry a gun no matter what. But I have to take care of the people who do.

Jesus didn’t tell everybody to do the same thing. The question we need to ask is, “Is this the right thing for me to be doing at this time?”

Why didn’t Jesus tell the Roman centurion to break up his sword, his spear, and be quick about it? Jesus told him to be ethical, to do his job, and to do it right. Centurions had lots of power to abuse. The issue is, Do it right. I use the same analogy of the rich young man who comes before Jesus. “What do I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice what he said: “Take all you have, sell it, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” Did Jesus say that to everyone he met? No, he banned money from that man because it was an issue for him. He didn’t ban all military actions, either.

Here’s a big military issue: defense. Do we really, as Americans, want to give up the police? Do we want to disband the military? Can we do this? Sure, but are we willing to live with the consequences? Do we want Jeffrey Dahmers living next door? Frankly, I think that’s what the military has moved into, police services. The idea of us being imperialistic is laughable today. Could you see us taking over Cuba? I don’t think so. We’re over that. This is the twenty-first century. So the military is now about maintaining property. It’s defense.

The way people see the military has changed dramatically. It was different during World War II, and in Viet Nam. And it was different during the Gulf War. Since September 11th we’re one of the most honorable professions; we’re fighting a terrorist aggressor.

St. Gregory’s, where I’ve worshiped, is there because fellow Christians in the military are standing their post, standing watch to protect our freedom, our religious freedom, to worship the way we want to worship. I give thanks to my Lord Jesus Christ that men and women have laid down the sacrificial service, and as a priest I pray every day that we will never have to use our military might to preserve our freedoms.

At a recent clergy conference I attended, people were saying, “The church needs to talk these people out of combat, get them to choose other options.” Okay, I’m all for that. Give me another option! Clearly, they haven’t met bin Laden or Hussein. There are no other options for these guys. The tension that Chaplains have is to impart critical thinking: to get people to use the best gifts they have, and to do that spiritually as well.

The media tries to tell us that 9/11 was the most tragic event ever. If we get on this bandwagon, do we forget the 1895 Indian Ghost Dance Rebellion? We sent in the cavalry and slaughtered every man, woman, and child. In World War II we took out a city: every man, woman, and child, not once, but twice! So after 9/11 everyone says to the Chaplain, “This is the worst thing to ever happen to humanity.” But it’s just the latest tragic event to happen to God’s people. Is it horrific? Absolutely. Is it the worst? Nah.

Here’s the real tension for Navy Chaplains: you have a young Marine whose job is to go over there and prosecute the war. He says, “I go over to do a job, and to come home. It’s either kill them or be killed.” We both know if you’re killed, you don’t come home. You lose the battle, you lose the war, you lose the American way of life. The only way to be able to do that job is to personify the enemy as evil. To put it in the colloquial, “My job is to go over there and kill rag-heads.” If a soldier thinks about the enemy having a wife and children and religion and a country, he’ll hesitate. And if he hesitates, we lose.

So, what do I do as a chaplain? If I talk these kids out of doing their job, they get killed. Their mothers or wives get a flag. But what does Jesus ask us to do? Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That’s the tension that we constantly live in. Can we do our job and look in the mirror in the morning, both as a chaplain and as a military person?

It’s the big question about stewardship. Stewardship isn’t just about money, it’s about the most important thing ever: the breaths we take into our body. And we’re called to use those wisely. War, prison, police: these are about containing the evils of the world. Is it possible to work in the military? Yes, it’s hard, but it’s possible.

It’s like how the Episcopal church treats divorce. Does anybody in their right mind walk down the aisle on their wedding day, thinking, “Oh, goodie, I get to be divorced some day.” Of course they don’t. But do they get divorced? Yes, because sometimes it’s the most responsible decision a couple can make. Are there people in the military who get up in the morning saying. “I get to kill people today?” Well, yeah, there are some people like that. But most people in the military get up every day thinking, “Am I ready to go to battle? Yes, I’m going to do what I’m called to do in this world.” Going to battle is the most responsible thing a military person can do. Is it a good thing? No. But it’s the thing we have to do right now.

We constantly pray for peace. How do we pray for you and the young men and women you serve?

We pray for you at St. Gregory’s. You’re on our prayer sheet for the 10:30 a.m. service. I also pray for justice and peace in Afghanistan. I pray for those who are victimized by the atrocities of war. And I pray for my brothers and sisters who are forward deployed on my behalf.

We’ve become so accustomed to taking peace for granted. That’s taking people for granted, the people in our military who have sacrificed lives and limbs, and millions of men and women who have left their families for six months to a year, God bless them. It is hard to imagine what is it like to kiss your wife and children good-bye. We can’t recover the moments we miss watching our children grow up. Why do we do it? Because America wants us to protect our way of life.

The parishioners at St. Gregory’s drive to church on fuel that’s being defended by the men and women who are forward deployed. It’s gas, steel, and the international market: our way of life. We vote by going down to buy our SUVs and our Lexuses. We want to walk into our Lucky store and see a multitude of choices. Well, there’s a cost to these choices, and that cost is being paid by the men and women who protect and defend this republic. Some folks want to say, “How can you be a religious person and hold up an M16?” But how can I buy iceberg lettuce that was grown in North Africa, with starving people there, in order to provide a nutritionally blank food for the American consumer?

How do we pay our taxes? Our taxes are maintaining this military structure. The way we consume, the way we are, the way we worship: we want to maintain all those things. And I say that’s a good thing. But there’s a cost that sometimes results in conflict and war prosecuted by the men and women in our military.

Are we willing to give up how we worship? Or even our SUVs and our iceberg lettuce? If we are, then we will call the troops home, and we will end our participation in international warfare. Will international warfare end then? No, it won’t.

You began your journey with the Franciscans. Can you still reconcile the peaceful teachings of St. Francis with the role you’ve chosen?

It’s an interesting dialectic in my life: how does this work, being a Franciscan and in the military? Francis began his journey in the military. And if Francis could do it, I can do it.

Even to this day, where I sit in my office, I still have San Damiano’s cross. I’m this Franciscan priest in the military! How do I live in this tension? I’m an Anglican, and I follow the via media.

I also have on my desk a letter about joining the Franciscan Third Order. I have not completed the form and joined the Order, but I’ve been thinking about joining for 25 years. Am I going to formally become a Franciscan priest? I know myself. I live the Rule of Francis now, but I’ve never been part of that Order. I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Dave Hurlbert is a writer and a member of the God’s Friends editorial board.


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