By Fr. Bill Kneemiller
Another year has sped by, and again I am traveling up north with my Reserve unit from Cedar Rapids. I’m wondering: how can I juggle everything? But I recently read that of the 2,700 Army chaplains only 100 are Catholic, so I sense I’ll be welcomed at the training.
A surprise awaits me at the training area, a few miles outside the base of Fort McCoy. I meet another Catholic chaplain who’s just finishing his two-week rotation. He’s Father Ioane Isigarara, who the other chaplains call ‘Fr. Cigar,’ and he’s been recruited from Fiji. He tells me that his first name refers to John the Baptist, which in Hebrew means ‘God is gracious.’
As I settle into day-to-day ministry I am pleased to find that our chapel tent is next to a picnic table, and soldiers will sit down there with their MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat). Meal times are a great opportunity for “picnic table ministry.” One day I see a squad-sized element — about six soldiers who are in the middle of their meal. I soon learn they are all senior-level sergeants, all from the Deep South in Georgia. I’m preparing to pray daytime prayer as part of Liturgy of the Hours and sense that these soldiers will welcome a little Scripture reading. I’m not disappointed. As soon as I sit down with my breviary, one of them said in a deep southern accent, “Hey Chaplain, have you come to bring us the Word?” Their faith is so deep I can feel it in their presence!
What a joy to sit there and read to them a few psalms from our Liturgy of the Hours. I recall that the purpose of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is to “sanctify time.” The beautiful Wisconsin sunshine illuminates the words on the page, and the gold-leafed pages reflect the value and treasure of God’s word as I read to these senior leaders. I also connect the sustenance from meals with our need to be fed by the Scripture in Jeremiah Chapter 15: “When I found your words, I devoured them O, Lord.”
On another day, a civilian contractor named Leroy drives up with a dent in his new truck. I ask Leroy how he got the dent. Leroy replies that his wife had a little fender bender. I tell Leroy, “I hope you forgave her.” Leroy says, “I did, and you know, the truck is just a piece of equipment.” Next to me at the table is a junior enlisted, a Specialist, E-4. I mention to the specialist “Wow, isn’t that amazing; it sounds like he has a covenant marriage; do you know the difference between a contract and a covenant?” The specialist perks up and says, no, but he’s interested because he has a ‘“sweetie’ back home in Chicago.” I run into the chapel and look up covenant in Paul’s letter. The specialist is intrigued, and I sense again that God’s word is so powerful that when we hear it, and when it’s explained, it changes us.
The day before we leave, the First Sergeant informs our unit that the chow hall will close down for cleaning, so it’s MREs for the whole day. I ask the First Sergeant if I can do a BBQ. He reluctantly OKs the request, though he thinks it sounds like “too much fun.” I post posters that read: “Free Will BBQ —Food so good it’s irresistible.” The BBQ turned out to be a blast, and the First Sergeant appreciates my assistant and me for taking food to the privates doing the grunt work. It was a privilege to literally serve the soldiers, and this gets to the heart of the chaplain’s ministry. As I settle into the bus for the trip back to Iowa, I reflect again on the privilege of being a chaplain and the joy of injecting a little fun or a study program, or just a little word of encouragement. Yes, all of this is worth the juggling.
(Father Bill Kneemiller is pastor of Ss. Philip & James Parish, Grand Mound; Sacred Heart Parish, Lost Nation; St. James Parish, Toronto; and Sacred Heart Parish, Oxford Junction. He is a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserve.)
An ambassador for Christ, not kale
I’ve been studying Netflix fitness documentaries such as “Forks over Knives” and “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” These DVDs introduced me to healthy diets beyond my green smoothie routine. One little update about kale — I believe that I am the only priest in the world who had a “kale intervention.” Yes, several months ago a couple of parishioners mentioned that I need to be an ambassador for Christ, not for kale. And, of course they’re right. That helped me to focus on another project, the Ranger Rosary, and to help get a rosary factory in Haiti.