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Above and beyond the call of duty …
A chaplain’s life

By Kirk Noonan

Biggs Chapel One is packed. A din rises as the 200 worshipers traverse the chapel, gripping and grinning. Major Will Barefield, an Assemblies of God chaplain, politely works his way through the throng to the back of the chapel where two privates have stationed themselves. When he reaches them, he enthusiastically shakes their hands.

"Isn’t it great to see all these sergeant majors in church this morning?" he asks, turning his head as if to direct the privates’ eyes to the higher-ranking military personnel around him. "Is this your first visit to our chapel?"

"Yes, sir," the privates reply simultaneously.

Barefield participates in devotions with three sergeants major. "Military chaplains are just like civilian pastors, except we wear a green uniform."

The chapel is located at Biggs Army Airfield at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Many in attendance are sergeants major who are studying at the U.S. Sergeants Major Academy, located here. Though Biggs Chapel One has historically not drawn much interest among military personnel or their families, the past 14 months have been different.

In that time, Barefield has heralded Sunday school, Bible studies, a youth group and weekend retreats into the mind-set of chapel-weary soldiers.

"The Lord got our family involved in this church," says Sgt. Maj. Gary Davis. "It is extremely difficult to find a church where soldiers can build relationships, because we know we will be leaving soon due to deployments or transfers. But here we’ve banded together quickly. It’s like a close-knit family."

Sgt. Maj. Allen Sprinkle, the chapel’s Sunday school superintendent, says worshipers who attend services on base are not at a disadvantage. "We have everything a civilian church offers," he says. "There are so many good activities you can’t help but get involved."

Though Barefield is grateful that the chapel has grown from 20 people to more than 200 during his tenure, he readily admits church growth is not his passion. "My heart is to reach and teach soldiers," he says. "Whether that happens in a chapel, on base, in a classroom or on the battlefield, it doesn’t matter. I have a heart for these soldiers. God has called me to do this."

To bring the message of Christ to soldiers in an effective and compelling way "chaplains must walk the soldiers’ walk," says Command Sgt. Maj. Phil Kiniery, second in command at the academy.

Others agree with Kiniery’s assessment of the makings of a good chaplain.

Sgt. Maj. Mack Boland has been in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years and says the chaplains he has come to respect and lean on for advice and encouragement during difficult circumstances have been those who have made themselves available at all times — including war.

"A lot of guys in the service look at people in the medical and chaplaincy branches like they’re not really soldiers; they’re just doctors or chaplains who happen to wear a uniform," he says. "But I’ve been impressed by those chaplains who work alongside the soldiers. In Saudi Arabia, there were chaplains right behind the front lines."

In his 14 years ministering to soldiers Barefield has been deployed or stationed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; Munchweiler, Berlin and Wiesbaden, Germany; and in Kentucky and Texas. He has been awarded the Bronze Star for disarming a soldier who planned to end his life and Barefield’s with a live grenade. Over the years Barefield has learned that going above and beyond the call of duty and wearing many hats is a fact of life in the topsy-turvy world of the military.

"Being an expert in one field is the demise of a chaplain," he says. "I’ve been a mechanic, confidant, psychologist, electrician, mailman and minister all in one day. I’ve learned that to be a successful chaplain I have to be good in many areas, not just one."

Today is no different. After preaching in the first service, Barefield, the regimental chaplain of the Sergeants Major Academy, joins a dozen third graders for Sunday school. He plays games, distributes juice and cake, and leads a simple lesson of faith with the 8- and 9-year-olds for an hour.

"Military chaplains are just like civilian pastors except we wear a green uniform," he says with a grin after the children are dismissed.

Later, he counsels a couple in their late 40s who plan to marry. Neither attends his chapel.

"The objective of the military chaplain is to provide for the free exercise of religion of all military members," says Charles Marvin, director of the Assemblies of God Chaplaincy Department. "We provide specifically for people of our own faith group. The opportunities for evangelism and discussion with soldiers about their spiritual condition, then leading them to a relationship with Christ, are numerous, given that a high percentage of them express no religious preference."

At 5:50 the next morning, Biggs is eerily quiet except for the distant barks of drill sergeants — weekday mornings begin with calisthenics. When reveille, the daily bugle call at sunrise, crackles out of loudspeakers, everyone stops, faces the center of the base where the American flag is and salutes. Minutes later, Barefield is running with hundreds of soldiers through the surrounding desert.

"I am not required to do physical training with these guys," says Barefield as he runs. "But doing this shows them I am one of them. That earns their trust, which makes ministering to them much easier."

Two hours later, Barefield joins three sergeant majors for morning devotions. Sgt. Maj. Mike Pickett, an impressively muscular man, thumbs through his well-worn Bible and shares Scripture. His compassionate heart betrays his imposing veneer as he talks of the youth ministry at Biggs Chapel One.

"I just know there has never been as much joy in anything I have ever done as doing the Lord’s work here," he says, his eyes moistening with a tear. "I can’t believe God has let me experience all this ministry."

Pickett and many of the other soldiers are the antithesis of the tough-as-nails, immoral, hard-living, task-driven individuals portrayed in Hollywood war movies. But some do fit the stereotype, getting involved with illegal drugs, alcohol and extramarital affairs. Soldiers face all the problems a civilian would face, but they have the added pressures of deployment, long stretches away from family and living up to macho stereotypes.

"A lot of guys, particularly in the military, are very hesitant about going to someone else with their problems," Boland says. "They want to handle the problems themselves. When we’re overseas, we have the stress of not just being away from our family, but being in a tough situation. In the military you can do a hundred things right, but any single mistake is scrutinized. When you’re in a high-profile atmosphere it’s very stressful. That’s why faith is very important."

Intervening in soldiers’ lives before they reach a point where they are hurting themselves or their families is one of a chaplain’s priorities, according to Norm Geyer, an A/G chaplain at Fort Bliss.

"It’s our responsibility to build trust with the soldiers so they will come to us when they have problems or struggles," he says.

To do that, Geyer and Barefield build roads of trust and make themselves available to the soldiers. In the field, Geyer conducts what the Army calls field expedient services. "I set candles, cloths, Communion wafers and juice on the hood of my Humvee and invite soldiers to take part in Communion," Geyer says. "Soldiers are hungry to know their Creator. We are here to bring people to God and into a relationship with Jesus Christ so that they will be able to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit."

Just before noon, Barefield enters a classroom at the Sergeants Major Academy with snacks in hand. "We are going to have a little pizza and soda," Barefield announces. "And I am going to talk about my relationship with God. Even if you don’t want to stay and hear me preach, you can have some pizza."

All but two of the 14 soldiers stay as Barefield, a gifted storyteller, spins an entertaining yarn. Afterward, he walks through the glimmering halls of the academy taking time to visit and encourage as many soldiers as time permits.

"Chaplain Barefield is good about talking to soldiers, but not forcing his beliefs on them," Sgt. Maj. Donna Brock says after her last class of the day. "I consider myself a non-practicing Catholic and I wasn’t going to go to the chapel here, but Barefield reached out to me. Now I attend the nondenominational service."

"I always try to keep in mind that I have to be flexible enough to talk about theologies and philosophies," Barefield says. "I have to walk into their world and talk God-talk. Eventually when asked my opinion I get to talk Christ-talk."

Currently there are nearly 1,300 chaplains in the Army. Last year, A/G military chaplains led more than 2,000 military members to Christ and gave out more than 43,000 pieces of literature, including 6,000 Bibles. While some chaplains belong to non-Christian faiths, the majority are Christian.

With "cooperation without compromise" as a motto, "Military chaplains agree to disagree with one focus in mind," says Geyer. "We [as Christians] want to lead people to Christ."

Sgt. Maj. Steve Carter, a chaplain’s assistant who has been on active duty for 18 years, says the making of a great chaplain is no secret. "Chaplains must have a genuine love for soldiers because of the sacrifices soldiers make," he says. "Chaplains have to have a keen interest in those soldiers who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country."

It’s that desire to serve that fuels A/G chaplains such as Barefield and Geyer to be all they can be for Christ.

Kirk Noonan is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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