There hadn’t been a chaplain at Camp Echo during the three years before I arrived, but now that people were being wounded and some were dying, our leaders decided to send a chaplain. My job was to build a religious program from scratch, take care of the spiritual needs of the people, and provide a “ministry of presence.” To do that, I needed a ministry team. I already had four congregations of prayer partners back in the States. Now I needed “boots on the ground” partners.
My first day at the FOB, somebody told me there was a civilian worker on post who was a pastor before the war. A Baptist preacher from North Carolina, James had been leading a Bible study every Sunday morning for the past year. In essence, he had been the only pastoral presence for the people at Camp Echo.
James worked the night shift, so on Friday night, the day after I arrived, I went looking for him and found him in his office around eleven p.m. A forty-two-year-old African American, he was a trim five-foot-nine with a ready smile, slight mustache, and graying goatee. He had a gold front tooth, which sometimes gleamed and sometimes was dark, depending on the lighting.
When I walked into his office, he was sitting at his desk. In front of him were two computers, a stack of paperback Bibles, water bottle, calculator, flashlight, thesaurus, telephone, and a fly swatter: things he considered essential. He wore a blue hoodie. I never saw him without that on, no matter how hot it was. He was indeed an ordained Baptist minister, and had heard that a “real chaplain” was coming.
When he saw that I was the new chaplain, he looked at me and grinned, flashing that gold tooth, but he was serious. The first words I heard him say were, “You gonna fire me since you’re a real chaplain an’ I’m not?”
I’ve read a lot of books and articles on various leadership styles and principles, and could easily make a case for asking James to step away from his previous role in the chapel program. It’s a common practice, for example, to bring in an entirely different team when a new leader arrives. Another issue is that a lot of pastors and chaplains want to do all the ministry: preaching, teaching the Bible study, praying for people, and visiting the sick.
But I know how important it is for all God’s people to be involved in ministry. Plus, I had a good feeling about the man, and I wanted to honor him for his faithfulness over the past year of leading the Bible study and praying for people.
So I said, “Pastor James, I have no intention of firing you. You were here ministering when there was no chaplain. Chances are, you might be here after I’m gone. How would you feel about us working together as co-pastors?”
When I called him Pastor James, his eyes opened big and he got excited. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious. There’s plenty to do. You already know everybody on post. You’ve been doing the job of pastor when nobody else was here. Perhaps you could show me around and introduce me to people in the various offices and sections.”
“I can do that,” James offered.
“And if the war continues, there might be times I have to be at the clinic or visiting another FOB when it’s time for church. I think it’s better if we worked as a team. What do you say? I could use your help.”
“I like that plan,” he said.
When I held out my hand to shake his, he threw his arms around me for a long hug, instead. “What about this Sunday morning?” he asked.
“Why don’t you plan and lead the worship service, and then introduce me as the new chaplain, and I’ll preach,” I suggested. “At the end of the worship service, we’ll serve communion side by side.”
“Then we’ll take it week by week,” I continued. “There’s a lot to do, and we can accomplish more if we work together.”
“Gotta deal.” He showed off that gold tooth again.
The differences between us were obvious: different denominations, different personalities, different spiritual gifts, different skin color, and more. But the fact that we worked together, supported one another, and honored each other had an immediate impact on the people at Camp Echo. Just as important, it seemed the Lord was pleased with the way we handled things, and he blessed our efforts from day one.
The decision to have Pastor James stay involved in the chapel program was a winner. There was a continuity that we were able to build on, and a unity that paved the way for the presence of God and the power of God to be experienced in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
This is an excerpt from the book Safest Place in Iraq. The book won first place gold at the Florida Writers Association’s Royal Palm Literary Awards as well as the first place Peach Award at the North Georgia Christian Writers Conference.