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West Point: Four days at the United States Military Academy

By Ken Horn

Perched high on the west bank of the Hudson River in southeast New York, north of New York City, are historic Fort Putnam and other fortifications that guarded the Hudson Valley from British attack during the Revolutionary War. Since 1802, the high ground near this site has been the home of the United States Military Academy.

At any given time, about 4,000 cadets make up the USMA student body. Those who have the discipline to meet the rigorous physical and intellectual demands for four years take their place in the Long Gray Line of West Point graduates. Every year the Academy places about 1,000 second lieutenants throughout the world.

There is a window of opportunity for the men and women of the Army chaplaincy to influence the leaders of tomorrow spiritually during the years they are here. In 1998 the Academy broke with the long-standing tradition of having the chaplains overseen by civilian clergy. They appointed Chaplain (Colonel) Scott McChrystal head chaplain. As such, McChrystal, an ordained minister with Assemblies of God Home Missions endorsement, has oversight of 10 chaplains and approximately 20 on-campus Christian organizations.

Chaplains (l. to r.) Cynthia Lindenmeyer (Methodist), Greg Cruell (Church of God in Christ), Scott McChrystal (A/G), Jim Carter (Presbyterian), John Cook (Southern Baptist).

The autumn colors are spectacular in the Hudson Valley when I arrive. It is crisp and breezy and many of the leaves have fallen, but God’s handiwork is still evident. Chaplain Mark Roeder, current pastor of the Lutheran Chapel, picks me up at the airport. He explains his appreciation for Chaplain McChrystal. "He’s not just a chaplain," Roeder tells me, "he’s a pastor." It is an observation I will share during my four days at one of the most strategic places of influence in our nation.

As we come over Storm King Mountain, West Point lies before us. We enter Stony Lonesome Gate, bypassing a long line of civilian vehicles that are being searched. Security has tightened since September 11. Each entry point is now a checkpoint and many roads and entries are barricaded.

At a Friday night dinner for the Academy’s influential Board of Visitors, McChrystal has been asked to give the invocation. General John Keane, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, speaks passionately about the recent terrorist attacks. At the Pentagon, the bodies of Army personnel were removed as in battle, he says, and brought to a tent chapel where each had a dignified private ceremony, away from media.

There is a deep sense of patriotism, but also a deeper spirituality than one might expect. "We commend to You our nation, Lord," McChrystal prays. "We ask that during this time of world crisis You will continue to uphold us by Your wisdom, Your power and Your love."

This is a community that has been intimately impacted by September 11. The Sunday following the attacks, a call for rededication to Christ found lines of cadets at the chapel altars calling out to God.

McChrystal, 53, seems uniquely prepared for this assignment. From a military family, he served 10 years on active duty as an infantry officer, including a year as a platoon leader in Vietnam. "At an altar one night in January of 1980, I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit," he says. "God impressed upon me that I should go into full-time ministry." He resigned his commission and attended Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

Recommissioned as a chaplain, he would serve in such diverse places as Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Polk, La., and in Korea and Germany. He attended numerous schools, including the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. He served in Bosnia as part of the first NATO force, Task Force Eagle, where circumstances were difficult and opportunities for ministry were abundant.

Chaplains wear two hats. McChrystal is both an ordained minister and a commissioned officer.

Saturday morning is sunny but blustery. Cold wind whips the flags that head formations at the parade and review prior to the Army-Tulane football game. From the stands, McChrystal points out a cadet at the head of one of the columns. "He comes to our Wednesday night Bible study," he says.

The study is a small group meeting that allows for personal ministry. On a recent Wednesday night, three cadets gave their hearts to the Lord in the McChrystals’ home, where the study is held.

Because of heightened security, there are long delays for those coming to the football game. People cannot park close or bring bags of any kind into Michie Stadium.

After the game — a 42-35 Army victory — the McChrystals invite several cadets to their home to spend time with Raymond Berry, NFL Hall of Famer and a committed Christian, who earlier addressed the cadets assembled at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes function.

Berry also gave the football team a pep talk just before the game. "What did you tell them?" someone asks.

"I told them to go out there and win, 42-35," he responds.

Bringing prominent Christian athletes onto campus is a regular means of effective ministry — as is the open door at the McChrystal home.

Sunday is filled with opportunities for Christian service and worship. McChrystal delights in the united ministry he shares with chaplains and believers of other organizations. Denomination means little here; the body of Christ is what counts.

Sunday school is held in roomy Thayer Hall; there is not enough room in the chapels. Today people brave the chilly elements to be here by 9 a.m.

Some cadets attend the adult electives. But 71 of them are involved in teaching children. One is David Webb, a 21-year-old junior who was in a Sunday school program as an "Army brat."

"I wanted to be a teacher," Webb tells me. "I realized when I was a kid how much I looked up to the cadets."

Later in the day, Webb will execute three parachute jumps, as a member of the cadet skydiving club, before attending church in the evening.

There are classes for every age group. Vince Lindenmeyer, the officer in charge of the Sunday school, shows me around. Vince’s wife, Cynthia Lindenmeyer, is the Methodist chaplain who coordinates the Protestant Christian Education program. She mentors the teachers, providing an hour of training prior to Sunday school each week.

As I tour the classes, I meet people who deeply love the Lord, and a few newcomers. There are lots of very creative things going on for children. And there are lots of children.

In one classroom, a cadet kneels with several small children, looking out the window at the majestic Hudson River. The lesson is on being safe in Noah’s ark and the vast river is a visual aid.

The senior high group is studying The Prayer of Jabez.

One of the adult electives is taught by Sergeant First Class Greg Alley. Alley, stationed here for more than 10 years, is teaching about the "Abba Father" relationship with God.

Another class, Christian Officership, is directed to officers and taught by a prominent West Point professor, Dr. Don Snider.

Electives are kept relevant, such as the one on death and dying that was prompted when some active duty officers died of cancer.

When Sunday school is over, people drive across campus for the 10:30 service. At the Community Protestant chapel it is Youth Sunday and youth are in charge. Skits and testimonies are the order of the day. Teens share how they came to know Christ or how their faith has been strengthened.

Chaplain Tom Wild is the pastor at this church that was once pastored by McChrystal. It serves the needs of staff, faculty and their families, as well as a small percentage of cadets. About one-fourth of the 300 in attendance are wearing cadet uniforms. Cadets who choose to attend church have the choice of a variety of chapels, including the main Cadet Chapel.

Wild explains some of the unique challenges of ministry here. "We lose a third of our people every year," he says, "because the Army rotates people out every three years. It’s like working on an elevator. People are going off and people are coming on."

On the heels of this service is a "Gospel Service," at which it is my privilege to preach. Most are cadets at this service. There is a beautiful sense of God’s presence.

Following a spirited time of praise, visitors are asked to stand. One cadet says, "I just told my sister I needed to start going to church, and then another cadet invited me."

A civilian says, "I just accepted Christ."

Chaplain Greg Cruell, credentialed with the Church of God in Christ, pastors this congregation. He is a graduate of Valley Forge Christian College (A/G) and AGTS. "The Assemblies of God opened up some tremendous doors of opportunity for me," he tells me.

Cruell also does leadership development seminars, focusing specifically on the principles of servant leadership.

"I’m like a kid in a candy store," he says. "This ministry is very challenging, but very rewarding."

Following the service I have conversations with several cadets and find young men and women who are passionate about their relationship with the Lord. One young man who recently committed his life to the Lord tells me, "I used to be the president of the drinking club here at school. Now my life is completely changed. I try to do everything for the Lord."

Sunday afternoon finds Judy McChrystal, Scott’s wife, at home preparing a study on the Book of Hebrews. The life of a chaplain’s wife is as eventful and spiritually challenging as she wants to make it — which is what Judy has done. Her class on Hebrews is one of eight Bible studies offered Wednesday mornings when more than 100 women come together for Christian Women of the Chapel. Judy is also involved in prayer groups and other ministries.

Later at the Cadet Chapel, about 200 cadets stand in the front area in a horseshoe formation, singing worship songs accompanied by guitars. This is Genesis, the Sunday evening time of contemporary praise and study, led by Presbyterian Chaplain Jim Carter.

As the cadets sing "Unto Thee, oh Lord, do I lift up my soul," the cold granite of the military gothic structure, which is reminiscent of an old world cathedral, is warmed by the praise of the cadets — and a handful of civilians watching from the wings.

Chaplain John Cook, pastor of the Cadet Chapel and a Southern Baptist, is speaking tonight on dating relationships. "The most important decision that anyone ever makes is receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior," Cook tells the cadets. "The second most important decision is who to spend the rest of your life with." All cadets are between 18 and 23 years of age and single, which makes this kind of frank discussion extremely practical.

At 6:30, Carter invites them to a time of refreshment. He also invites them to stop by during the week if they would like to talk. One-on-one interaction is perhaps the most effective type of ministry for the chaplains of West Point.

As the cadets eat ice cream, McChrystal and I make our way to the facility where AWANA, an interdenominational ministry manned by civilians and cadets, reaches a large number of children.

In one room a cadet from Honduras, one of 20 exchange students, talks to about 30 children. In response to a child’s request, he recites John 3:16 in Spanish.

When we leave, Chaplain McChrystal and I stop at Keller Army Community Hospital to visit two ailing cadets. McChrystal, like the other chaplains, has spent much time here, ministering to people in severe need.

Early Monday morning, I meet Ren Wallen, 55, pastor of nearby Lighthouse Christian Assembly of God. About half his church is from West Point, and half of those are cadets. He also leads the Chi Alpha ministry on campus.

Personal relationships are an important part of his ministry as well. "Cadet Feeds" are a frequent occurrence.

Wallen recently met with a cadet in his office. "Have you ever accepted the Lord?" he asked him.

"No, sir."

"Would you like to?"

"Very much, sir," was the response. Many cadets have not heard a clear presentation of the plan of salvation and are eager to accept.

At 7:40 a.m., as we walk across campus, the cadets, dressed today in BDUs — battle dress uniforms — are on the way to their first classes. Those who pass near us salute Chaplain McChrystal. I see a high school student in a sweatshirt tagging along with one of the cadets. Prospective students are occasionally allowed to come and spend a day with a cadet.

On our way to the chaplains’ offices, we make a brief stop at the cadet mess hall. This is where 4,000 cadets are fed in 20 minutes each day.

When we enter the Protestant chaplains’ conference room, Navigators representative Dave Meade, one of several civilian parachurch ministers, is having a Bible study with one of the cadets.

A final meeting with several of the chaplains punctuates my trip with the clear sense that, although there are differences in their denominations, there is undeniable unity around the common cause of exalting Christ and serving the people of West Point. These chaplains are not just filling their posts. They are touching lives. Many cadets commit their lives to Christ, are baptized in water and integrated into the various discipleship ministries, only a few of which have been mentioned in this article. And many are ministered to in a variety of other meaningful ways.

"We are seeing many, many people — cadets and members of the community — touched by God," says McChrystal. "Every day I get up, I can say, ‘Lord, thanks for the privilege of being here and the privilege to serve.’ "

The words of one young man are typical of how this array of godly men and women is touching the leaders of tomorrow. "I didn’t think anybody cared," he said. "Thank you for reaching out to me."

The Assemblies of God is indeed honored to have one of its own in such a prestigious post. But we should be more thankful that we, through one of our choice chaplains, are part of something much bigger than the Assemblies — a concerted and effective effort to build God’s kingdom on the grounds of the United States Military Academy.

Ken Horn is managing editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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