- Written by Tyler Own Hendricks
Chris Antal is Director of Field Education and Director of Interfaith Relations at Unification Theological Seminary, Barrytown. He was recently sworn in to the Army Chaplain corps as a second lieutenant, the first UTS graduate to have accomplished this. In this interview, conducted by Tyler Hendricks on December 4, 2008, Chris shares insights into the emerging interfaith dimensions of military chaplaincy and the relevance of this to UTS.
Chris, congratulations on your achievement. Tell me, what does it mean to be a military chaplain? What do you do with this position?
Military chaplains provide religious support to soldiers and their families and share their burden. I have been assigned to the 104th Military Police unit, a National Guard unit based in Kingston, NY. We provide pastoral care and counseling to National Guard members, marriage enrichment workshops, we train and drill with troops preparing for deployment. Chaplains are leading the work of re-integrating returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan; that is the main work being done on the ground here.
Chaplains are non-combatant soldiers, so we don’t train with weapons and are not permitted to use them. But otherwise we are trained to function on the battlefield. We have a dual role as clergy responsible to our faith group and also a military officer.
What will your work schedule be?
Right now I’m in the Guard so I drill one weekend a month and the Army is supporting my participation in specialized Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training in the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital Castle Point Campus, where I am a chaplain intern. I’m in a small group with one other military chaplain and others who will be VA chaplains. The group includes a priest, an imam, a rabbi, and several Protestant ministers: people representing all the Abrahamic faiths.
Apart from that, I go for extended two-week training with my unit once a year, and participate in professional development opportunities with other military chaplains semi-annually. Chaplains are also called upon between drills to provide pastoral counseling to soldiers, and visit families at the time of death notifications.
What is it about chaplaincy that attracts you in your spiritual path?
Ten years ago I began working with the Office of International Religious Freedom at the US State Department and discovered a passion for working cooperatively with people of other faiths and a commitment to freedom of religion. At that time there was a committee at the State Department called the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. Their final report discussed America’s role in promoting religious freedom globally. One of the report’s recommendations was that more attention be paid to military chaplains’ capacity to serve as ambassadors for religious freedom. That triggered my interest in military chaplaincy.
When I was a student at UTS, I read Douglas Johnston’s book, Faith-Based Diplomacy, in which he writes about the potential of military chaplains to serve as faith-based diplomats and work for interreligious peacebuilding. So while I was at UTS I further explored this calling toward the chaplaincy and expanded my interfaith studies. After graduating, I did a CPE residency and found chaplaincy to be a good fit. In my encounters with people of other faiths, I find I grow spiritually through dialogue. It has become a spiritual practice for me. Practicing compassion is another spiritual practice. I find deep fulfillment in being with people in their suffering and sharing their burden.
I should also mention my family here. Family is an important part of my spiritual path; following the path to military chaplaincy has connected me more with my dad, who served as a Medical Officer in the Vietnam War. My dad was with me yesterday when I was sworn in; he is proud of me and I am glad that I can honor him by going this path. I have also gotten my oldest children involved in my ministry at the Veterans Hospital—they came in on Veterans Day to sing songs to the residents, and volunteer from time to time assisting those veterans confined to wheelchairs. Of course there are the financial benefits. Military chaplaincy provides me with an opportunity to do a meaningful ministry and provide for the needs of my large family.
What is your career track and where are you on it?
National Guard chaplaincy allows me to be engaged in an active ministry while continuing my responsibilities as the Director of Field Education at UTS, in fact it feeds into UTS Field Ed, strengthens my resources to help guide students, and helps me be a better teacher, for example, in the areas of trauma healing and interfaith dialogue.
I need to keep one foot in the world and one in the academy; that way I can be a better minister, better educator and better bridge between the world and the academy. I serve the students as a bridge. When I was a student at UTS, Dr. Winings was one of the faculty members from whom I learned the most. She was here two days a week and the rest of the time she was leading an organization out in the world (IRFF). It meant a lot that she had practical ministry experience and could teach from that position with authenticity and conviction. So she was a great role model for me.
In any case I’ve been assigned to a unit that just returned from Iraq and right now the cycle is that units are deployed once every five years. When my turn comes for deployment, I would have to take a leave from UTS.
Do you perceive that military chaplaincy is moving in an interfaith direction? How does that work in the field?
The military needs chaplains of all kinds, but especially chaplains with sensitivity to people of other faiths. It is great that an interfaith UTS is rising to serve this need. The mission of chaplains is moving beyond the traditional religious support for troops and ethical advisors to the command, to serve also as “religious leader liaisons.” Chaplains meet with indigenous religious leaders, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan, or wherever. The purpose is not intelligence gathering; it is to build trust and win hearts and minds of the local community. They provide religious diplomacy and advise commanders on issues that could potentially alienate allies and civilian populations.
For example, I met the Jewish Chaplain at West Point, Carlos Huerta, and he made a great impression on me. He memorized some verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, so in Iraq he became an important peacebuilder. He led initiatives to rebuild mosques that had been destroyed and helped with the burial of Muslims that had been killed in conflict. And he was a rabbi! As another example, when American forces entered Nasyryah, Iraq, in 2003, the local Iraqi leadership bypassed the senior military officers and went straight to the chaplain. They did so because his uniform displayed a cross and therefore they thought he was clearly in charge. So the military is now seeing that chaplains are well placed to identify opportunities for religious leaders from different factions to meet and build trust, which can lead to opportunities for cooperation and reconciliation.
How did UTS help prepare you for chaplaincy?
First, UTS gave me the academic credential-the M. Div-that is recognized by the Department of Defense, and was a requirement for me to enter a CPE residency at Westchester Medical Center, where I confirmed my calling to chaplaincy and was trained in trauma ministry. Secondly, during my time at UTS I learned the basic tenets of the world’s religions and had opportunities to engage in interfaith dialogue with religious practitioners from every major world religion, right here in the Hudson Valley. Third, at UTS I discovered through field education that there are many ways to do ministry beyond the traditional parish or church setting. Finally, UTS gave me the freedom and resources to explore my interests. When I expressed a special interest in the ministry of Martin Luther King, for example, and the seminary did not have a course in it, the Dean supported me in creating a new course with faculty supervision; this led to the civil rights tours. Ultimately I did my M.Div. thesis on Christian Muslim relations, which is particularly relevant to military chaplaincy today.
How does your military ministry enable you to better serve UTS students?
What I’ve been able to do is pioneer the path into professional military chaplaincy from our own UTS that others can follow. So it’s a new vocation for UTS graduates. I’m available to serve as a mentor and advisor to students who feel called to chaplaincy in any setting. Specifically I can help people who want to explore military chaplaincy, which I think is a wonderful calling combining the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry with interfaith peacebuilding on the literal front line.
Chris Antal lives with his wife, Mitsuko, and five children in Wappingers Falls, New York. He is preparing for ordination in the Unitarian Universalist Association and working towards his Doctorate in Ministry at Hartford Seminary, where his focus is on Christian Muslim Relations.
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