News: Chaplain mobilizes to fill spiritual void at developing base
Story by Sgt. Maj. Michael Pintagro
MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania – The small but spirited congregation of 21st Theater Sustainment Command soldiers gathered on a clear, crisp winter Sunday morning to sing hymns, discuss scripture, reflect on a sermon, pray and take communion.
None of this would seem particularly unusual except for the location. The general Protestant gathering, attended by around 20 soldiers of all ranks, marked the first formal religious service on MK Air Base in memory.
“It was a great service,” said Sgt. Jean V. Delinois, a construction engineer with the 902nd Engineer Company (Vertical), 15th Eng. Battalion, 18th Eng. Brigade. “It was a very simple setting and a simple service, but that was a good thing.” The Haitian native and resident of Sunrise, Fla. noted that the MK gathering differed a little from the Gospel service he normally attends in Grafenwoehr, Germany, but “that’s alright. God is everywhere.”
“I liked the service,” added Spc. Brandon Barrett, a Houston native and fellow construction engineer with the 902nd. “It wasn’t fancy, but it was very effective. I think he got his message out very well.”
Capt. Donald Smith, the 16th Special Troops Battalion, 16th Sustainment Brigade chaplain, organized and conducted the service as part of his campaign to develop a vibrant ministry at the Romanian air base, home to a rapidly developing passenger transit center and a growing mission.
“We want the soldiers who come inside the doors of the chapel to know there’s hope and care wherever they’re at spiritually,” Smith said of mission. “When soldiers walk through the door, I want them to know they have religious support, counseling support and any support we can provide. I see this becoming a ‘home away from home’ for travelers. I see soldiers coming through the doors, maybe tired from a journey, and finding a nice, welcoming environment as well as the religious support.”
The Grand Rapids, Mich. native envisions a robust range of services, including inspirational literature, coffee and snacks in addition to spiritual guidance, counseling and religious services. He also plans to conduct weekly Bible study sessions, which typically allow for more discussion and a deeper exploration of spiritual and moral issues. Another idea involves holding a regular “movie night,” including a showing of a popular movie and subsequent discussion of moral or spiritual issues confronted by the characters.
A Protestant by faith and training, Smith nonetheless devotes equal energy to accommodating other Christians and other religions. He hopes to finalize an agreement with a bilingual local national Catholic priest to conduct weekly mass in English on base within a few days. Smith offers outreach, coordination and counseling services to anyone he can’t personally accommodate.
Nor does the energetic chaplain limit his concern to those clad in Army Combat Uniforms. He reaches out to Marines, Airmen and Civilians as well as Soldiers, visiting the base gym, mess hall and other common facilities as well as service-specific venues. “I see myself as a ‘uniter,’ bringing everyone together regardless of service or specific faith and keeping everyone focused.”
“There’s a lot of value in just getting out and being present and reminding people they’re not alone and that we’re here for them,” added Spc. Daniel Hamilton, Smith’s assistant and a native of Dallas. “It’s important to let people know they’re not forgotten and that people are grateful for what they’re doing.
“The spiritual piece is an important dimension of strength in our Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness campaign – spiritual resiliency is as important as physical resiliency,” Hamilton continued. “A lot of these Soldiers are combat veterans – they’ve been deployed before. But they’re still dealing with family separation issues – some will experience guilt, some may have family or relationship issues they’re dealing with. We want to be conscious of all those aspects of Soldiers’ lives and support them to the best of our ability – how do we help someone find some peace and strength, comfort and mental rest, regardless of their religion?”
The ministry team concentrates on developing a religious service infrastructure for personnel conducting operations on MK; but they welcome transiting passengers as well. “If you’re only here for a day or two, you probably won’t have a chance to come to the service, but if the timing works out, they’re absolutely welcome. And the literature, and hopefully coffee and snacks, as well as the counseling and support, are always there,” Smith said.
The team’s outreach even extends beyond the perimeter of the base. The chaplain and his assistant participated in a visit to a Constanta orphanage Jan. 19, and plan to build on the effort, perhaps arranging future visits and delivering care packages. “We’d like to give back to the local community,” Hamilton said. “We want to be good to people and leave them with a good impression of Americans. Little common courtesies can make a big difference – and they’ll continue to make a difference long after we’re gone.”
The team’s accomplishments loom particularly large in light of the previous paucity of religious support at MK. “There was a weekly informal Bible study some of the Marines put together with a lay leader, but that was it,” Smith said. “This building,” he continued, glancing around, “was identified as a ‘chapel,’ but it was just a plain building with some chairs and tables.” Smith outlined plans to leverage inspirational items from chapels closing as the German footprint consolidates to elevate the atmosphere.
Smith and Hamilton see unique opportunities and possibilities as well as challenges in the MK mission. “It was exciting to have the opportunity to be part of this mission – to stand up a chapel and provide religious support to this community,” the chaplain said.
So far, Smith’s message seems to resonate with much of his intended audience. “It was good to come into God’s house and it was a good message,” said Pvt. Gnapa Akaffou, a West African born construction engineer who makes his permanent home in Bronx, N.Y. “I hope I’ll have a chance to come back next time.”
Pvt. Johnny Batiste, another construction engineer with the 902nd, said he attended his first service since basic training Jan. 19. “It was a good service,” the Las Vegas native said. “The last couple weeks have been pretty much non-stop work; but it really boosted my morale to come here and be part of this. You don’t feel alone when come together with a group and study and pray.”
“Coming here really helped get my spirits back up,” added Pfc. Moussa Sylla, a construction engineer from Takoma Park, Md., just outside Washington. “God is everywhere and you can experience the presence of God anywhere.”
Date Posted:01.23.2014 05:44
Location:MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU, RO
Hometown:BRONX, NY, US
Hometown:DALLAS, TX, US
Hometown:GRAND RAPIDS, MI, US
Hometown:HOUSTON, TX, US
Hometown:LAS VEGAS, NV, US
Hometown:SUNRISE, FL, US
Hometown:TAKOMA PARK, MD, US