An Ongoing Act of Translation: The Case of Large, Complex, and Religiously Diverse Institutions

Originally written in May 2014 for a yet to be published book, edited by the Rev. Karen Hutt, on Institutional Ministry by Unitarian Universalists.


When discussing my life in service as a US Navy chaplain, I generally feel bound to clarify that the call to military ministry presented itself as a spiritual call like any other. A significant amount of sober thought and deliberation went into the decision. Though I had felt called to Naval Chaplaincy, it was a call I did not want to heed, and from the start of ministerial training, my goal had been to enter campus chaplaincy. I loved university life and thrived within it; I understood its rhythms and idiosyncrasies, and I greatly appreciated its occasional anarchies. Military ministry was neither the goal I envisioned when I entered divinity school, nor the goal that loved ones envisioned for me. So it took a good deal of discussion and reflection to translate my first clear intimation of a future in military service into the act of raising my right hand, repeat the oath of office, then sign NAVPERS 1000/4—the form that every Navy officer has signed accepting a commission. chc logoNevertheless, it was not a rational discussion or calculation that brought me to service as a naval chaplain. Nor was it September 11, 2001. My military service was to begin in 1996, in the midst of a rare period of international hopefulness. The collapse of the Soviet Union (and with it the Cold War) was several years behind us; the European Union’s experiment with internal open borders was taking shape; and the Truth and Reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa had begun to offer the world a new model for moving beyond even the most psychologically searing forms of conflict.

That’s not to say all was well around the globe. The genocide in Rwanda, with its stupefying pace of slaughter—more than 800,000 killed in 100 days—was fresh in memory. So was the multi-year campaign of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; and the ability of the 1995 Dayton Accords to permanently staunch the conflict was far from self-evident. Also still fresh in memory was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, though in most Americans’ minds, including in my own, it was hardly a harbinger of struggles to come.

Yet none of these events affected my decision to put aside, for an unknown stretch of years, my vision of a life in campus ministry faded and I began to contemplate instead the joys of Officer Candidate School (OCS) at age 28. At least, world events did not influence my thinking in any way I can access or track. Readers may well differ on the question of whether true spiritual callings are possible. Whether, that is to say, the Divine can actually enter our lives to communicate—in an unmistakable fashion that almost invites our febrile attempts to just go ahead and try to ignore this message—that we need to look at what’s behind door number 2, even if we had our hearts set on 1 or 3. Many will assume that callings are in fact the product of the unconscious mind as it seeks to make sense of events, whether personal or geopolitical, and present its conclusions in an irrefutable form.

To those who doubt the possibility of a calling, I can only say that I felt called to do this work, I believe I was called to do it. And who believe in its possibility but have trouble applying it to the context of military ministry, I can only say that this was a calling like any other.

So I found myself entering the Navy in 1996, as the first Unitarian Universalist to serve on active duty since the Korean War and one of the few female chaplains of any faith tradition in any of the US armed forces. I would be working, to be sure, largely with the same population of millennials I had been eager to minister to in campus settings, but within a wholly different framework (where, among other things, my generally left of center politics and peacenik bona fides marked me as a point of curiosity and/or suspicion to so many of the young people I encountered).

(My naval career quickly derailed before it ever officially started. The day after graduating Divinity School, I was diagnosed with an exceptionally rare form of cancer. I spent the next two years recovering then another three to get back into the Navy. I finally was commissioned on August 21, 2001.)

I experienced September 11, 2001, from the vantage point of a Naval Lieutenant Junior Grade (O-2). Many of the young men and women I ministered to found themselves mobilizing for a war they never could have foreseen. Shortly thereafter came a wave of enlistees who had been motivated to serve in the wake of 9/11, or who had been on the enlistment track before the tragic events of that day but sought to invest their service with new meaning in its wake.

By 2004, I found myself posted to a chaplaincy at Guantanamo Bay, in the immediate aftermath of the troubling revelations of Abu Ghraib. For months, I walked the cellblocks where male, primarily Muslim detainees were housed. Ostensibly, I was there to provide a calming pastoral presence, yet by my very being—an American woman in military uniform wearing the sign of the cross—serving as a provocation. A decade later, as purveyor of the open and affirming stance of Unitarian Universalism, I find myself being “stationed” in a very different sort of contested terrain, asked to contribute to new policy and culture change as the armed forces scramble to respond to the collapse of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet, nearly two decades since OCS, I also serve alongside vibrant and growing cadre of fellow Unitarian Universalist clergy.

This article specifically reflects on the institutional coordinates of our ministry. In this respect, I find myself returning to a single, central theme of my time to date in the vast and complex institution that is the US Navy: my service has been nothing so much as an ongoing act of translation. It has been a process of translating Unitarian Universalism to the Navy, from which the Unitarian Universalism presence had largely been absent for decades after the Korean War; translating between and among various religious positions and worldviews, as a chaplain from a uniquely open faith tradition; and, last but not least, translating what a life in military service means to the Unitarian Universalist community, which has not always been eager to understand us.

Finding a Common Grammar

I do not wish to push the metaphor of translation too far. However, it is important to note that, before I could grow into an institutional role built largely around bridging and interpreting a wide range of faith traditions and worldviews for diverse constituencies within an incredibly complex institutional setting, I had to master some important early lessons in the common grammar that makes translation possible in the US military context. This lesson is put best in story form.


My promotion to Lieutenant with Captain Stephen Epperson, CHC, USN (l), and Senator John McCain (r). (Washington, DC, October 2002)

My first assignment in the Navy was in Washington, DC, where my supervisory chaplain was hard-core, old-school, and Southern Baptist. He never had heard of Unitarian Universalism, let alone met one! Our first meetings might easily have been filmed as sitcom. On one side of the table, the new officer, a female chaplain, representing a faith that likely seemed amorphous, doctrineless to her superior officer. On the other, a seasoned military chaplain, veteran of every conflict since Viet Nam, who twinned the discipline of a rigid military hierarchy with the discipline of his own, staunch conservative belief system. We struggled to find common ground when discussing the needs of our largely 18- to 30-something flock, the contours of ministry, and the interplay of military and spiritual needs and demands. Finding common ground in a theological sense would have been a complete non-starter.

Yet that first senior chaplain I encountered fervently believed in one shared basis for our work together, which was neither military nor spiritual in nature. This was the unequivocal call of the First Amendment. For him, the First Amendment mandate meant that, whatever our agreement (or lack thereof) over matters of ministry and theology his role was to help me as the military’s lone Unitarian Universalist clergy member begin to build a framework for my ministry, allowing servicemembers who find Unitarian Universalist tenets compatible with their spiritual needs to reach out and find support, whether from me directly, or from a larger Unitarian Universalist presence we both hoped would eventually emerge.

Our relationship grew with time, and we built respect for one another’s ministry and commitments to our servicemembers. Eventually, this supervisory chaplain emerged as one of Unitarian Universalism’s greatest allies in the Navy. On transferring to Great Lakes Naval Training Center, where all Navy recruits report for basic training, this chaplain noticed right away that there was no Unitarian Universalist representation within the command religious program. Without any fanfare, he proceeded to recruit two of Meadville Lombard seminarians to begin a weekly Unitarian Universalist service. For the first several weeks, mostly empty chairs populated these services; but as word spread, attendance swelled to regular crowds of 80 or more. For the past decade, thousands of new sailors have thus gained access to support and fellowship in a Unitarian Universalist context during the arduous process of basic training.

In describing my first supervisory chaplain’s First Amendment convictions as the platform for our shared work, I by no means wish to paper over the serious critiques and legal challenges brought against the US armed forces. Across all service branches there have been reports of marginalization of non-dominant faiths (e.g., accusations that Evangelical Christianity enjoyed an entrenched, favored status at the Air Force Academy). As documented by the Vanderbilt University First Amendment Center, the Navy chaplaincy has come under particular legal scrutiny via an ongoing case from 2002, Adair v. England. At issue in that case, among other things, is the Navy’s potentially low allocation of non-liturgical Christian chaplaincy positions, relative to the number of Navy servicemembers who identify as non-liturgical Christians.

Yet in the military—as in all institutions—there is a noticeable disjuncture between the practices of administrative elites and daily practices “on the ground.” In my own nearly two decades in the Navy, I have found other chaplains, including superior officers in chaplaincy commands, to be forthrightly committed to helping lay roots for Unitarian Universalist ministry. They are not always motivated by my first supervisory chaplain’s form of high regard for the First Amendment. Some may be motivated by official Department of Defense (DoD) policy, which emphasizes the importance of religious diversity and religious accommodation. They may be motivated in other cases by formal or informal tenets of collegiality, or by their own intuition that supporting chaplains of other faiths—particularly those who can minister to those who stamp NRP (no religious preference) on their dog tags—will help to build a stronger, more resilient Navy.

The bottom line is that the platform for our work together has been, not a form of interfaith dialog or even necessarily shared respect for or knowledge of each other’s faith traditions. Instead, shared, non-religious frameworks of law, policy, professionalism and/or practical concern for the needs of service people drives a day-to-day reality in which interfaith cooperation plays a prominent role. My first supervisory chaplain articulated a neutral basis for our work together with particular clarity. In other assignments, it has taken more time to tease out. But by taking time to identify such shared, secular, motivational norms, it becomes possible to emphasize them and enlarge them, and thereby open more room for outsider forms of ministry, such as mine was at the beginning. Moreover, it become possible to act within strengthen the case for pluralism and interfaith cooperation, based on the institution’s own norms and practices.

Translating Under Stress: The Guantanamo Bay Experience

It might seem at the outset that the crucial form of “translation” that occurred in the Guantanamo context concerned Christian-Muslim interchange, yet there was no room for anything so exalted. As noted above, my assignment to Guantanamo Bay came in the wake of the Abu Ghraib revelations. As part of an overall strategy to minimize the potential for similar occurrences, the US military sought to enhance the visible presence of clergy at Guantanamo. It was hoped the visible presence of clergy would help to promote reflection and caution, even among servicemembers who do not regularly seek ministerial guidance—that they would be reminded to make recourse to their own ethical and moral codes before sliding into the type of behaviors that shocked the world at Abu Ghraib. To a certain extent, you might say, we were there to operate as walking moral stop signs, if not speed bumps.

The pressures on personnel at Guantanamo were enormous. Even absent the intense, global scrutiny directed at us in the wake of Abu Ghraib, it would have been far from easy to carry out even rudimentary functions involving detainees. The base was overcrowded but arguably understaffed. Air and sea transport to and from the facility was spotty, and media personnel were demanding more and more of available transport resources and putting additional pressure on already-burdened supply lines.

Meanwhile, a number of the detainees in US care—primarily radicalized Muslims detained in connection with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—were engaged in an ongoing, low-level struggle against military personnel, using any tools at their disposal.

For instance, one of my tasks was to make daily, walking rounds of the cellblocks where detainees were housed. Most days, I received the “Special Treatment”— feces, urine, spit, and/or semen hurled from the detainees. It was a visceral form of protest to my presence as a female, a US Navy officer, and a chaplain who bore the sign of the cross.

Meanwhile, I was being watched and guarded by, largely, 18-20 year old American males, many of whom had been raised in Evangelical or Catholic households, with strict codes of masculinity. Managing my own response to the actions of the detainees was secondary to managing the anger and protective instinct provoked among young, male servicemembers.

Here I began to understand the unique capacity of the Unitarian Universalist belief system to help manage conflict and negotiate difference. Unlike many faiths, Unitarian Universalism does not simply offer a framework for aspirational behaviors toward self and other, but it offers a framework for understanding and contextualizing the behaviors of others. Its lineages are far closer than most religions to secular disciplines of, for example, human rights law and humanist psychology; hence Unitarian Universalist prayer, meditation, and practice can lead directly to the type of social insight needed to defuse conflict in social and institutional settings.

Early on, as I realized the challenge of relating to detainees at Guantanamo, I meditated specifically on the principles of the dignity of each human life, and the right of conscience. In fairly short order, I found myself better able to contextualize and cope with the extreme behaviors of detainees, to understand the rational and even conscience-driven element behind displays so clearly meant to humiliate me. In point of fact, members of the US military are also instructed to “torment their captors” if taken as prisoners of war. The harassment directed at me was, I realized, structured along analogous lines. The “Special Treatment” represented just one strategy. Another was when a habeas corpus lawyer sent me a bible, a thesaurus, and two volumes of Shakespeare, with the request that I pass it on to a specific detainee. Luckily, it was never in my hands, whether or not to pass materials on to detainees—I merely forwarded the package to the command’s legal team. However, this too was likely a tactic of humiliation: if I failed to deliver the materials, I and/or the US could be critiqued in the press for failing to deliver humanitarian aid to detainees (I was/we were); if I had passed the materials on, I/we could have been critiqued for rank and insensitive forms of western religious and cultural proselytization.

Building direct bridges to the detainees was, a priori, out of the question, and that was never part of my charge as a chaplain at Guantanamo. However, defusing tensions was. By meditating on central Unitarian Universalist tenets, I was able to gain conceptual purchase on the actions of detainees, which in turn helped me to set an example and guide and respond to younger, more reactive military personnel around me.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I did not at the outset try to engage US personnel by asking them to consider our common humanity with the detainees. I merely asked them to consider the common ways that we had been trained to respond when taken captive. From that moment of translation and equivalency others followed. Because even the most patriotic and hawkish of the young people to whom I minister understand that war causes us to behave in ways that defy our own internal senses of humanity. They understand this better than any civilian. It is not a stretch from that moment of recognition to recognizing a common sense of humanity to be defied.

The Guantanamo Bay Experience: Ministering to NRPs

JTF-GTMO Religious Ministry Team with the then Navy Chief of Chaplains, Rear Admiral Fr. Louis V. Iasiello (back, center right). (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 2006)

If the foregoing represents translation at a primarily conceptual level, there were other, more pragmatic forms of bridging that were crucial to ministry at Guantanamo. I have not been able to source statistics concerning the religious profile of military personnel posted there, but they likely resemble the general military population, which is a fairly diverse group. Without a doubt, Catholic and non-Catholic Christians represent the lion’s share of the population; however, a finer breakdown suggests that a dizzying array of Christian groups is represented in the forces, and while non-Christian presence is relatively slight, there are sprinklings of representation of every faith from Judaism (likely around 1% of the total armed forces population) and Islam (likely around .6%) to Paganism (likely between about .4 to 1%).

However, there are also significant ranks within each service branch who report no religious preference. These NRPs represent nearly 30% of enlisted personnel under age 40, according to a 2010 analysis by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC). This is in keeping with national trends, which suggest that young people are increasingly likely to identify as NRPs or “nones.” Yet the NRP population is by no means devoid of spiritual leanings or commitments. Indeed, less than 4% of all servicemembers self-report as atheist or agnostic (coded as “humanist”) according to the same MLDC study.

This population represents a particular challenge as large institutions seek to offer ministerial support to their members or clients, because they may be resistant to seeking guidance from traditional Catholic or Protestant clergy. The number of service people who affiliate and identify as Unitarian Universalist is actually miniscule. Yet the comparatively flexible Unitarian Universalist worldview, with its incorporation of diverse influences, including secular ones, may allow Unitarian Universalist ministers to reach populations of NLPs with particular efficacy.

We are, as a group, also uniquely poised to help the military understand the spiritual needs of NRPs. This may include, as odd as it sounds, the “spiritual” needs of atheists and agnostics, who may eschew formal ministry, particularly any ministerial guidance that relies on a concept of the Divinity. Yet in the incomparably stressful and challenging context of war, even agnostic and atheist service people may want the opportunity for pastoral care and guided philosophical reflection; moreover, they may actively need to rely on such care, given the stigma that continues to attach to psychological counseling for active servicemembers.

In the context of Guantanamo, therefore, I became particularly invested in ensuring that servicemembers who did not routinely reach out for ministerial guidance felt invited to do, at whatever level of intensity worked for them. One of the most visible outcomes of this drive was the “Chapulance”—an ambulance I retrofitted to provide a calm space for servicemembers to hang out and chat about what was on their mind. The Chapulance allowed me to perform outreach in all corners of the base, the places where the most routine operations took place, rather than expecting the flock to come to us. Because if the faithful tend to flock, the less strongly affiliated tend to spread out and graze—institutions must be reminded to meet them where they are, and Unitarian Universalist ministers me must be part of that effort, no matter what institutional context they find themselves in.

Translating to My Own People


Unitarian Univesalist Ministers serving as military chaplains. (Ft. Lauderdale, FL, June 2008)

In many respects it has been easier to translate the work of Unitarian Universalism to the military than vice versa. The support commanding officers have evinced for me as a Unitarian Universalist should not come as a surprise. Particularly given the growth of NRPs, the armed services increasingly understand the importance of chaplains who can minister in nontraditional ways, and who can help to help bridge diverse constituencies and worldviews.

I have, conversely, often been unpleasantly surprised by how difficult it can be to gain acceptance of my military work by fellow Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, when I began to contemplate military ministry, the idea provoked various shades of hostility, ranging from disdain to outrage, among many of my colleagues and Divinity School classmates. Early in my career, I witnessed certain processes from the inside but found it impossible to convince nonmilitary Unitarian Universalists to take my own experiences seriously. For instance, much of the Unitarian Universalist advocacy for detainees at Guantanamo felt misguided to me, based on faulty evidence and preconceptions. But I had difficulty gaining even a friendly ear within the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) when I offered to share my own firsthand view of things on base. One of my own central missions in ministry is to be interpreting military culture to civilian Unitarian Universalists so that they can come to understand the aspects of this life that are affirming and directed toward goals of peace.

One key way to channel these efforts has been through the humble and pan-contextual notion of service.

Just before I left for my first deployment, a sociologist friend related Erving Goffman’s idea of “total institutions.” Goffman’s idea was that some institutions were made to remake people. He considered prisons and military institutions prime among these. All the markers of personal identity are stripped away on entering: you give up your own clothes, submit to a standardized haircut, eat the institution’s food, submit to their schedule. There was, truly, something profound about the process. I found myself bonding with the other chaplains of my basic training course in a way that outstripped anything I experienced in college or graduate school. We chaplains were forced to put aside differences in order to concentrate on fulfilling each task given to us, and function as smoothly as possible.

I know the criticisms of this mentality. There is the idea that service people lose the ability to think critically, that they forgo moral decision making. However, the people with whom I serve also have a quality that many of us lack in civilian life. Where we (as civilians) prize individuality almost above anything, service people believe in the importance of acting as a unit. The beauty of this rarely is recognized outside of military life. But how many of us have worked with groups that tackle important social issues, only to watch action falter over internal, often petty, conflicts?

One of the few places we can look to find examples of subjugation of one’s own needs to the collective goal is the deployed combat unit. The military is as filled with career concerns as any institution. But when a mission is at stake, that mission becomes paramount; loyalty and unity become the arbiters of life and death; and conflicts in personality and ideology are put aside in order to get the job done. It is a view of service that never ceases to inspire me, and there are many in the military that embrace it, not because they love war, but because they yearn for security and peace. It reminds me daily of what service means in any context, and it makes me wonder if there is room in progressive politics—where the individual’s needs and goals have come to represent the highest ideal—to reengage with the idea of collective mission. This is a new type of Rosetta Stone I am working to craft.

I am not sure what a total institution would look like in peacenik terms, but I suspect that many of us actually yearn to feel integrated into a more purposeful whole.

An Ineradicable Tension

Simultaneous to these various acts of institutional translation, of course, I have also been translating on a far more intimate, internal level, seeking to bridge and balance the two distinct callings I have encountered in my life—one to ministry within a tradition that places the utmost faith in peace and coexistence, and one to ministry within an institution of war. As I suggest above, these positions are not as inherently at odds as many Unitarian Universalists might believe. However, the tension is ineradicable.

In this regard I face the same task that every military chaplain faces: to wear my dual insignia with conviction. To the right of my collar are the insignia of my military rank. To the left, the device of my chaplaincy, the cross.

Here it should be noted that, while Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith and does not take the cross as a central holy symbol, the cross provides a reliable shorthand for my role in the given context. Having been raised as a Christian, gravitated to Unitarian Universalism due in part to its Christian roots, and my theological framework primarily rooted in Christianity, the cross feels comfortable to me on a personal level. Institutionally, it makes a wiser choice than the flaming chalice. Military culture relies on swift, almost automatic recognition of countless visual symbols and abbreviations. Were I to sport the flaming chalice on the left side of my collar, fellow servicemembers likely would read me as a member of the Explosives Ordinance Division (EOD)—which I surely am not and never have been.

The collar device, you might say, represents one, initial act of translation.



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