JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - The 'free exercise' clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Wicca, Hinduism and Judaism all believe in a deity who answers prayers. Even personal philosophies such as atheism hinge on the First Amendment right to believe no deity exists, and the right not to pray.
Various books on these religions, faiths and personal philosophies stood on display at a table at the National Prayer Luncheon at the James G. Lee Reserve Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson May 13, 2014. The theme chosen for the event looked at the common belief in prayer: 'United We Kneel'. Prayers and readings from Muslim, Christian and Jewish sources were performed.
Retired Air Force Chap. (Maj. Gen.) Cecil Richardson was introduced as the guest speaker for the event.
"During [former] President [Dwight] Eisenhower's administration, the national prayer luncheon gave leaders a chance to come together and give thanks for the many blessings our nation has enjoyed, and continued emphasizing the importance of spiritual wellness for our citizens," said Air Force Col. Brian Duffy, JBER and 673d Air Base Wing commander. "Our celebration today continues that time-honored tradition. We're very honored and humbled to have Chaplain Richardson with us today."
The retired chaplain used examples from his life as he spoke on the meaning and power of prayer.
"When I came into the military, I didn't know anything about religion," he said. "I was drafted during Vietnam and joined the Air Force hoping to go to a school, maybe learn a trade."
He became a Christian while enlisted, and separated to study for missionary work, he said.
"I got degrees in Greek and Hebrew and I thought I would be a Bible translator; a missionary," he said. "I didn't really feel a call to do that, but I figured the call would come. It never did."
Instead, Richardson said he felt drawn back to the military.
"The more I thought about that, the more it became a fire burning in me," he said.
In his speech at the luncheon, the chaplain described his challenges along the way, including his attempts to get accepted into seminary while he was still enlisted, having practically everything he owned stolen from his dorm room and therefore not having the money nor required items for the school, and deploying overseas to a location where prayer was not permitted.
Richardson said he wrote a list of everything he needed to become a chaplain, including what he needed to get into seminary, and had a short deadline to have everything by. Broke and with limited options, he said he fell to his knees and prayed that God would provide his needs, without Richardson sharing his needs with anyone, so he would know God was working when the needs were met.
The chaplain then described case after case where people gave him both money and items, including a mattress cover that was on the list of required items to bring to seminary.
"Who gives a mattress cover?" Richardson asked, laughing.
Finally having the required money and items, he needed only the acceptance letter from the seminary, which came the day it was due.
"God is never late," Richardson said, asking his audience to repeat the phrase for emphasis.
As soon as he graduated from seminary, he started to apply for chaplaincy.
"It takes a long time to become a chaplain; you have to be an experienced pastor in addition to that education," he said. "Once I had the experience I applied to become a chaplain. The doors opened and I came in as a chaplain in 1977."
Richardson spent six years enlisted; four as active duty and two in the Air Force Reserve, and more than 35 years as an active-duty Air Force chaplain.
"I paid my dues," he said with a laugh. "In many ways, [being a chaplain] is the worst job imaginable. It's a terrible job; it's 24/7, 365 days a year for the rest of your life. And if there's anything that goes wrong, any kind of disaster or family crisis, you get called to it. When you're deployed, it's even worse because the chaplain gets called in for every single thing that goes wrong on the base.
"The worst thing I've [had to do] in my life, I did seven times at my first assignment. That is a death notification. To stand at a doorstep in the middle of the night and get yourself prepared to speak words that no mom or dad should ever have to hear - there's nothing worse."
For all that, Richardson said the chaplaincy has the highest retention of any field in the military.
"If it's such a rough job, why would people want to stay in?" he asked rhetorically. "Because there's a God in heaven who loves us and calls us to be chaplains, encourages us, and walks alongside us. In my career, I was deployed so many times I really didn't keep track of it. I was the [U.S. Central Command] chaplain for years. I was overseas so much, but God was always with me. He always encouraged me and no matter how bad that situation got, I was never alone because the one who called me, deployed with me."
Richardson said he believes God has blessed him tremendously.
"I got embarrassed by God's goodness; He just kept blessing me," the retired major general said. "He blessed me with a wonderful wife. He blessed me with three sons who are all people of faith. The third epistle of John 1:4 says 'I have no greater joy than to know my children are walking in the truth.' I have to spend my life saying 'thank you' to God and telling other people how good God is. Every so often I get a chance not only to see my family, but to speak up one more time. Hey everybody; God is good to us, and we should be thankful."
One of Richardson's sons is also a chaplain currently stationed at JBER. Air Force Chap. (Maj.) Steven Richardson, JBER senior Protestant chaplain, started his career while his father was still active duty. When his son decided to become a chaplain as well, Richardson tried to talk him out of it.
"I felt that if I could talk him out of it, God didn't call him," the elder Richardson said. "If God called him, I knew I couldn't talk him out of it. So I tried. He's got his own calling; he's a great chaplain, and he didn't need me to open doors for him. It brings tears to my eyes; that's where I get choked up."
They may be the first case where a father and son served as chaplains together.
"I don't think there's ever been another father/son team on active duty as chaplains at the same time," the father said. "I had to be very careful to stay out of his career. I went way out of my way; when there was a promotion board or a development team or something, I dramatically left the room because I owed it to him. I didn't want anyone to be able to say 'you got that because of your dad'."
His son said he received his own calling and was happy to serve after watching his father's accomplishments.
"I wake up every single morning and care for Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines," the younger Richardson said. "I get to share my love and God's love with them, and encourage them as they walk in faith."
When the retired chaplain had the opportunity to speak about his passion and spend time with his son, he paid his own way.
"There's the good reason and the real reason to be a guest speaker," he said. "The good reason is I just love the military and I love speaking for the Lord; that's who I am - I've done it for so many years. The real reason is that it gave me a chance to see my son, so I gladly paid my way up. I'd do it every time."
The prayer luncheon also included readings from different faiths.
"We [had] a Jewish reading, a Muslim reading and a Christian reading," Richardson said. "We're not trying to be politically correct, we're trying to say we all believe there is a God in Heaven who hears and answers prayer. We want to respect one another and stand side-by-side. You see the big billboards that say 'United We Stand' - the theme of this is 'united we kneel'. That's powerful."
"To me, the National Day of Prayer means the opportunity to encourage others to practice their faith and to get down on their knees before God and say 'God, we realize that the only way we can walk well is to first kneel,'" Maj. Richardson said.