We were driving down the hill to what would be my new home in Vietnam. The two senior chaplains escorting me were in conversation in the front of the jeep: "Do you think we ought to tell him?" The other replied, "I think we'd better." Obviously, they had my total attention.
I was told that the previous chaplain had become addicted to heroin, and there had been such a negative reaction among the troops that at first it had seemed best not to deploy a new chaplain until all the troops who knew about it had finished their tour. However, the racial tension there was so bad that the command chaplain felt the battalion needed a chaplain right away. The chaplains finished telling me this as we slid to a stop in front of the headquarters, where they dropped me off.
Those two issues set the stage for my ministry that year. I came to have a lot of compassion for the previous chaplain as I dealt with my own struggles. I felt so alone and displaced. Maybe he had, too.
The one constant as I dealt with this totally new environment was God. But a change, a transformation actually, was emerging in my relationship with God. I came to realize that a limited sense of love, often reserved for a few close friends, was at the root of my loneliness. That broke down in time through a deeper, God-impelled love for those around me.
As for the racial tension, the officers, sergeants, and I worked hard to get at and remove the root causes. It took months. I prayed daily about how to respond. Often I found myself at the right place at the right time and connected with the right people to relieve the tension before it became violent. In those days, the chaplaincy started to call this kind of connectedness a ministry of presence. In reading the series on military chaplains in the "Backstory" section of this newspaper, I see that it's still called a ministry of presence.
I feel that the more a chaplain recognizes the presence of God, the more the chaplain's presence makes a difference in whatever he or she does. A striking example of this came at a time when equipment began to disappear from our battalion, and our commander was threatened with being relieved of his command. Everything was being done to stop it. When another piece of equipment disappeared, my first impulse was to go to the commander – to be a comforting presence. But then I decided to do something else first. I put the whole situation in the presence of God, supreme good.
What that meant to me is captured in a passage by the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy: "God, good, being ever present, it follows in divine logic that evil, the suppositional opposite of good, is never present" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 72).
In spite of appearances, I anchored my prayer to the divine logic that nothing evil could gain access by any means to the presence of God, supreme good, in which we all lived. Whatever evil seemed to be going on could not hide from the divine presence and its power to arrest and remove it.
Within a few days, I received word from a wife whose husband had been in our unit but was missing and was thought to be living in Saigon. She enclosed a letter from her husband to his civilian brother that told what to do to be part of a new drug ring. The wife forwarded the letter to me as the chaplain. Almost immediately, I had a strong conviction that this young man and other missing soldiers were entering the battalion with all the right identification, checking out items from the motor pool, and then selling them on the black market to fund their drug scheme. Nothing in the letter suggested that; it was just a strong intuition. I shared it with the commander, and he took action to round them up. When they did, the loss of equipment stopped.
For me a ministry of presence starts with the presence of God, supreme good. Acknowledging that divine presence makes all the difference.