Extensive, Uncompromising Grace, and Moral Politics

As an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving as a military chaplain, I inhabit a position with numerous built-in tensions. In his recent essay, “A More Beautiful World: The Challenges of Unitarian Universalist Military Chaplaincy,” my colleague, the Reverend Ian White Maher, helped to bring some of these tensions into sharp relief.

Maher speaks with an important and convincing passion of the need to preserve key Unitarian Universalist values, to stand against “colonialism, feudalism and religious, cultural and racial biases.” But he worries that these values may be lost in “our rush to support the career decisions of our military chaplains.”

After mulling over Maher’s challenging critique, I found myself stuck on a basic question: if we minister eagerly and enthusiastically to college students, why is the project of ministering to our young people in uniform so easily taken as suspect, as a challenge to our most hallowed principles?

College students are—just like service members—caught in institutions with troubling dimensions and legacies.

As a 13-year Naval officer, as well as someone who feels at home on college campuses, I understand well how military and university life differ. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that colleges and universities have legacies of racism, colonialism, and sexism (to name just three linked oppressions) that continue to reverberate. Elite universities are primarily sites for the reproduction and extension of class inequalities. Evidence of a sustained sexual assault crisis on college campuses is mounting—along with evidence that survivors’ interests have been systematically ignored or underplayed. Though military recruiters are periodically deemed unwelcome on college campuses—Wall Street recruiters are almost invariably embraced with open arms.

Indeed, colleges and universities increasingly court partnerships with major business interests, carrying out their research agendas and, all too often, grafting their rhetoric and ideals onto university life. Meanwhile, let us not fail to recall, numerous colleges and universities thrive on funding from the Department of Defense (DoD).

Do military chaplains have to be politic in how they broach their responses to military policy? Absolutely. College and university chaplains must be politic as well. So must those of us who minister to the 1%—another aspect of institutional entanglement and complexity that we fail to recognize at our moral peril.

American corporations have, over the past several decades, assumed an ever more rapacious and ruthless stance, causing their own vast forms of devastation and dislocation, both domestically and abroad. Yet how often do we stop to ask whether we are compromised—whether our ideals our compromised—if we minister to either the “footsoldiers” or “generals” of corporate life?

The simple truth is all of us are caught in webs of institutions that render us complicit in terrible harms. There is no escaping that truth, only a continual process of recognizing how the institutions around us operate, and defining our roles with regard to them.

Ironically, military chaplains at least have a defined position vis a vis military institutions. We have certain guaranteed protections that we will be able to minister according to our consciences and faith. We wear insignia to show we minister within these institutions but are not fully of them. Where else, I wonder, is the distinction made so clear?

Maher rightly cautions us against thinking of Afghanistan’s citizens as helpless, backwards people waiting for America to bring them enlightenment and hope. Yet, curiously, he comes close to portraying military recruits in just this manner, suggesting that it is only appropriate to minister to them as:

Americans who have been preyed upon by recruiters and now find themselves in desperate situations, fighting people who never intended to hurt them, and often ending up with lifelong debilitating injuries, both physical and mental.”

Some of us in the military have been just that: prey. Nevertheless—more often than not—we also are justifiably proud of our choices. If some have been victims of unscrupulous recruiters, many also have become heroes of unimaginable scope, rescuing comrades from snipers and IEDs, erecting hospitals at ground zero of the Ebola pandemic, serving as global first responders in the aftermath of catastrophic natural and/or corporate disasters.

At all times—even when one might believe US policy to be tragically misguided—we are the most visible bulwark of national defense. We are the people who have pledged to put our lives on the line to ensure others can live without ever once wondering whether our nation is about to be invaded or our government overtaken by coup. It is an historically unparalleled luxury, one built largely on the backs of servicemembers’ service. So if, as men and women in uniform, we are sometimes victims of US policy, we are never only that.

Does this mean that we can overlook military policies that run counter to the Spirit that Unitarian Universalism seeks to make ever more manifest in the daily world? No. Never.

But it does mean that the men and women who choose military service are, pretty much like every other individual, navigating a tough and complicated world and making the best choices we can, within institutions that are deeply entangled with mechanisms of power, status, and profit.

Maher quotes a haunting passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”

We cannot afford cheap grace, and we must vigilantly seek its opposite: extensive grace, uncompromising grace, grace that does not only celebrate the easy high points, but admits to uncomfortable truths.

Yet so must our moral politics be extensive, uncompromising, and willing to admit to uncomfortable truths, unwilling simply to ponder obvious targets of critique removed from our own experience.

May our grace be extensive, and may our moral politics be as well.

We are all of us caught in systems of oppression, all of us both victims and potential heroes, all of potential agents of positive change.

Some of us just happen be those things while wearing our nation’s uniform.


Belfair, WA


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.


Veteran’s Day 2014

Q&A with Harvard Divinity School (unedited)

Thursday 06 November 2014

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran's widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [June 2004]

Presenting the national ensign to a Veteran’s widow while serving at Arlington National Cemetery. [Arlington, VA, June 2004]

HDS:  First, a quick logistical item: Have you been serving as a Navy Chaplain since graduating in 1996?

I was scheduled to attend Naval Chaplaincy School in June 1996, directly upon graduating HDS. Those plans were scuttled by a scene straight from an ABC Movie of the Week: me—an eager 28 year old soon to embark upon her career—waiting for the results of tests done on what appeared to be a cyst, then sitting frozen as my doctor pronounced the words, “non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” So after graduation, instead of reporting to Chaplain School, I directly reported for chemo and radiation for two years.

After being cleared, I continued pursuing Naval Chaplaincy. Finally, in August 2001, I was commissioned and I attended Chaplain School in January 2002. As of 2014, I am 18 years cancer-free—and 13 years into a career that I wouldn’t change for anything.

HDS:  Where have your Naval travels taken you?

My first assignment (2002-2004) was in metropolitan Washington, DC. I served a Naval Base in Indian Head, MD, and the Marine Chemical Biological Incident Response Force unit stationed there. I also performed services at Arlington National Cemetery. Afterward (2004-2006), I served aboard the USS John C Stennis, an aircraft carrier. Travel-wise this was less exotic than you might expect, since the carrier was in dry dock at her homeport in Washington State. During that time (2005-2006), I was sent on an Individual Augmentation to the Joint Detention Center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—an assignment equally challenging and rewarding.

Following the ship, I was stationed in San Diego, CA (2006-2009), where I led programs and retreats on marriage enrichment, spiritual growth, and personal resilience. From there, I moved to Portland, ME (2009-2012), where I served as the Chaplain for Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. I was then selected for Funded Graduate Education and attended the University of San Diego (2012-2013), where I received an MA in Peace and Justice Studies.

Most recently, I came here, Kaneohe, HI, where I now serve a Marine Combat Logistic Battalion. Every morning, my meditation walk on the beach reminds me what a blessing Naval service is. (I promise that’s the only bragging I’ll do about the spectacular view that comes with my current assignment. Actually, I love New England and miss it. Especially this time of year!)

HDS:  Back when you were on campus in 2008, you described yourself as a peace-loving pacifist. So, why did you choose to enter the military? Was there an experience you had while a student at HDS that influenced that decision?

I first experienced the call to ministry when I was eight years old (1975), in a moment that felt like a flash of recognition. It was an image that occurred to me while I was in sitting in the pews during a Sunday morning worship service—I saw myself on chancel, behind the pulpit, staring out at the congregation. Despite the utter illogic of it all (it seemed inconceivable that this skateboarding Tomboy who played drums would ever end up as a minister), I felt that someday, in fact, I would be that person on the chancel. Those moments of calling repeated themselves and matured.

In college (1985), my then boyfriend and I were driving from New Orleans, LA (where we were in school), to Panama City, FL, where he lived, and we stopped at the Naval Base in Pensacola, FL, to visit a classmate who also was in Tulane’s ROTC program. As soon as I stepped on base—which was my first time ever on a military installation—I had another powerful moment of recognition: this is where I am supposed to be. And this was unmistakably the military.

It wasn’t, however, as simple as that—just joining the Navy and being a chaplain. (There is nothing simple about being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist who finds herself called to military ministry!) But when I have felt a call, I know to follow it, and just surrender myself to where it leads.

After the Pensacola trip, I contacted a recruiter who gently pointed me toward Divinity School. After college, I attended HDS. And at HDS, I found my way to Unitarian Universalism, where I realized that this was the faith tradition from which I was meant to minister. But military ministry had been in the picture for a while.

HDS:  As a Navy chaplain, how did you wind up working with Marines in Hawaii? Further to that, what does a day in the life of a military chaplain look like? What does your ministry entail?

I’m in the front row (as usual) on the far left. (Not an intended metaphor.) [Kaneohe Bay, HI, June 2014]

Navy Chaplains serve all the sea services: Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy. This is my second Marine tour. Like most Navy chaplains, I love serving the Marines! (Then again, I love being with the Coast Guard and the Navy.)

The job of a Navy chaplain is four-fold. First, we provide, which means we minister directly to service members of our own faith. (There are relatively few servicemembers who identify as UU, though I consider the “nones,” humanists, atheists, agnostics, and “spiritual but not religious” to be mine.)

Second, we facilitate faith-based resources for those to whom we cannot directly minister. So, for instance, when one of my Catholic Marines who was going through a divorce and needed confession, I arranged for a priest to meet with him.

Third, we care for all service members, no matter their faith tradition. Another example, one of my Marines recently received an AMCROSS message (a message from the American Red Cross notifying him of his mother’s death). I delivered the news to him, held him while he cried, and accompanied him along his next steps. That kind of care is non-denominational at its root. That is pure love and compassion.

Finally, we advise. Up and down the Chain of Command. As a military chaplain, I enjoy 100% confidentiality in my pastoral relationships, which is a powerful thing. Even if a service member confesses intent to do harm to self or others, I cannot violate that pastoral bond, and all servicemembers know it. That means they come to me with some of the most searing and difficult issues imaginable, and it means that I often have more access to the “real story” of what’s happening on base than many Commanding Officers, investigators, lawyers, and counselors do.

So, how this relates to advisement then? Another example, one day a Marine comes to my office and describes a hazing incident. Later that week, a second Marine—from a different section—comes to see me and describes a similar story. Then a third. After the third, I thought these three incidents might be the tip of an iceberg, so I immediately brought it to my Commanding Officer (CO).

When I went to my CO, all I had to say was: “I think there might be a problem with hazing in the Battalion.” That was it. No examples of the incidents. No details that might compromise identities. Nothing. As soon as that sentence was out of my mouth, he was on the phone, coordinating with his subordinates, ensuring that anti-hazing policies are reinforced and Company Commanders and Senior Enlisted monitor their Marines more closely on this issue.

As for a typical workday, there is no typical workday. Usually it depends on the assignment. At present, I start my day before sunrise with a half-hour to hour meditation and prayer. At work, I’ll spend about 4-5 hours a day in counseling, an hour in physical training, and an hour on administrative tasks. Most important, I’ll spend 1-2 hours each day devoted to what’s called “deckplate” or “WAB” (Walking around the Battalion).

Deckplate/WAB is really the key. That’s when I get a sense of dynamics in the unit, and it’s how I get to know my Marines and sailors. Forging connections before crises happen is vital to any institutional ministry. It’s particularly vital in the military, where we are working with a young adult population with strong codes of masculinity in place. For them to reach out to me, they have to be comfortable. Getting to know them before the crises strike—that’s the heart of my job.

HDS:  You had mentioned that when it was announced during your HDS Commencement that you were going to pursue chaplaincy in the U.S. Navy, there was a collective gasp from the audience. You’ve even stated that your desire to serve as a military chaplain was “this odd calling that we don’t hear in the hallowed halls of Harvard.” Why do you think that was at the time, and do you have any sense that it’s shifted in the last couple years, especially as more campuses, including Harvard, welcome back certain ROTC programs due to the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law?

It was a challenge for many Unitarian Universalists to understand my call to military ministry. Some would aver that the only role for a spiritual guide in the midst of war is to call on combatants to lay down their arms and seek peace.

Yet, it’s important to consider what it means for the United States to have an all-volunteer service. The majority of enlisted are young adults who find that most roads to the “American Dream” are closed to them. For many who join the military, college is out of reach—and work available to high school graduates is a dirt path that doesn’t necessarily merge onto that American Dream road. Many of my Marines and sailors come from chaotic families, neighborhoods, and/or schools; they’re seeking a safe, orderly environment, a place where the rules are clear, and a place where they can really do their part with honor. Keeping this background in sight is important to understanding our current military.

I love academia, and I have boundless respect for the HDS community. Yet, for me, my big question is not really how prestigious campuses such as my fair Harvard view the military, or even how HDS colleagues view my call and the work I do. My question is, why would anyone want to restrict the kinds and types of ministerial presence available to a “congregation” such as this?

I minister to people, I don’t minister to military policy. I minister to individual servicemembers who are doing what they believe is right for themselves, their families, and their nation. Increasing numbers of servicemembers identify as “nones” or NRPs (“no religious preference”). (Many are even NPRs—National Public Radio-heads.) Increasing numbers are out as gay and lesbian. Increasing numbers are women. Why not have their choices of chaplains include those of us who are not conservative representatives of the Abrahamic faith traditions whose views (we assume) align more easily with military culture?

More often than not, I am the chaplain Marines, sailors, and their dependants come to discuss incidences of sexual assault. I also am the only one on island whose religious tradition allows me to counsel same-sex couples and perform same-sex marriages. And no matter who someone is or what their concerns are, my job is reminding my Marines, sailors, and family members that ours is a benevolent universe, that we belong to it and it belongs to us.

I make things more human for my Marines and sailors, and they make things more human for me: that is what we call fellowship; that’s what we call communion. Why not here? Why not exactly here of all places? Unitarian Universalists should be the first to understand that Spirit is everywhere.

HDS:  What is the single biggest challenge you face as a military chaplain?

For me, that’s not hard to answer: Being a peace-loving, conscientiously-objecting pacifist. I try to honor the complexity of my role and my position. I think of it as being a peace “mole”—a sort of turner of fresh earth, more than a spy.

I focus on the fellowship, companionship, and important ministry work I get to do with amazing young adults. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. There are times that I feel like a cog in the military industrial complex. There are times I feel misunderstood by both the military community and the UU community. But it is possible to build bridges. It’s all about relationships and small steps, there is just no way around that.

One professionally gratifying moment happened very early in my chaplain corps career. My primary instructor at the Naval Chaplain School—a rather intimidating senior ranking Navy chaplain who was a really conservative Southern Baptist and drove a pickup truck with a gun rack back home—said to me at graduation: “Chaplain Kane, I do know you’re a tree hugger and I don’t know what a UU is, but I think we oughta keep you.”

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With my child, while serving the Coast Guard. [Portland, ME, March 2011]

Other challenges become apparent as I get older. There’s a certain way age makes me look at mortality more squarely than even cancer did. And I’m a mom now. That changes things. CACO calls, for example. (That’s when I as a chaplain accompany a uniformed Navy representative to inform a family member or next-of-kin—in person—about the casualty of their loved one.) This is one of my most sacred duties, and I would never want to opt out of it. Being there is so important. But with parenthood and age, the loss of young lives becomes increasingly intolerable. I get nauseous every time I approach the front door.

HDS: As a chaplain in the armed services, you kind of serve double. (You serve the people who serve.) What is most rewarding aspect of your work? 

Your question relates well to aging—because the older I get, the more I realize serving others defines the quality of our lives. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy yourself, practice compassion.” That could just as easily be: “If you want others to be happy, serve others; if you want to be happy yourself, serve others.”

Right now I’m serving with Marines—and what a crowd they are! Eleanor Roosevelt has this famous line about Marines: “The Marines I have seen around this world have the cleanest bodies, filthiest minds, the highest morale…” The quote goes on from there in a way I don’t particularly agree with, but there is a hilarious truth to that first part. I’m surrounded by fit young adults, clean-shaven, well-groomed, as fond of filthy humor as one might expect a bunch of young adults (mostly male) who are living on their own for the first time to be. And they’re also some of the kindest, most thoughtful, best mannered young men and women anywhere. These Marines and sailors are utterly devoted to completing their missions and bringing each other home safe, whether from a war zone, or a zone of devastation following a natural disaster.

I value my peacenik, hippieish heritage. Though in the world of intellectual endeavor and political protest, there’s a tendency toward terminal uniqueness: defining ourselves in the singularity of our thoughts, opinions, and tastes. In military culture, we define ourselves by our ability to be the same to some extent: to pull together and act as one.

Thanks to the remarkable men and women I serve, I know, on a daily basis, what that feels like to be part of something bigger than myself. So do my Marines and sailors, and our Guardians, soldiers, and airmen and women. No matter one’s goal or mission, this is the essence of service: allowing the quest for uniqueness to cede to the uniquely beautiful quest for a common good.


Offical, edited HDS article appears here.