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 Bishops 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, Im
not going anywhere; why not join the Navy? In 1975 I signed
It was postViet 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 dont do what you tell them to do.
But I was a 90-pound weakling. The only thing I had over these
guys is that Im quick to learn, and Im good with my
hands. I could fix equipment they couldnt fix
Now I see being in the Navy was part of my Christian journey,
but I was a starving Christian. I couldnt 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. Pauls Walnut Creek. After a while the Rector there
offered me a full-time job. Eventually I went to college and divinity
Finally I said, This is really easy, and Ive been
doing it for a long time. Maybe its time for a change.
Now I know that as a youth minister Id experienced too much
grief. For 18 years, Id get a new group of kids, grow them
up, move them through, and graduate them. And I couldnt
go through the grief of falling in love with another group of
kids and then losing them. So I thought, What do I do? Im
a vocational youth minister and a priest. I know adolescents and
young adults really well, and theres a part of me thats
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 dont talk the Chaplains 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
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 its
a rigid system. In the officers and senior ranks its a whole
different cup of tea, but for enlisted people especially, you
know exactly what youre 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, Im a priest. Your spiritual development
is important to me.
I dont think youll like my background.
I said, Try me.
Well, Im an American Indian. I have an Indian religion.
He had no idea Id 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 dont
understand. Im a sergeant in the Marines. Ive seen
five chaplains, and every one of them threw me out because I told
them I have an Indian spirituality. And youre trying to
find me a spirit guide? No ones ever taken care of me before.
I said, Thats 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.
Doesnt 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 Im not allowed to
carry a gun no matter what. But I have to take care of the people
Jesus didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt ban all
military actions, either.
Heres 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
thats 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 dont think so. Were over
that. This is the twenty-first century. So the military is now
about maintaining property. Its 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 were
one of the most honorable professions; were fighting a terrorist
St. Gregorys, where Ive 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, Im all for that.
Give me another option! Clearly, they havent 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
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 its just the latest tragic
event to happen to Gods people. Is it horrific? Absolutely.
Is it the worst? Nah.
Heres 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. Its
either kill them or be killed. We both know if youre
killed, you dont 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, hell 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. Thats 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?
Its the big question about stewardship. Stewardship isnt
just about money, its about the most important thing ever:
the breaths we take into our body. And were 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, its hard, but its possible.
Its 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 dont. But do they get divorced? Yes, because
sometimes its 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,
Im going to do what Im 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 its 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. Gregorys. Youre 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.
Weve become so accustomed to taking peace for granted.
Thats 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 cant 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. Gregorys drive to church on fuel
thats being defended by the men and women who are forward
deployed. Its 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, theres 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
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 thats a
good thing. But theres 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 wont.
You began your journey with the Franciscans. Can you still
reconcile the peaceful teachings of St. Francis with the role
Its 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
Even to this day, where I sit in my office, I still have San
Damianos cross. Im this Franciscan priest in the military!
How do I live in this tension? Im 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 Ive 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 Ive never been part of that
Order. Im not sure what Ill do.
Dave Hurlbert is a writer and a member of the Gods
Friends editorial board.