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Diversity of worship poses challenges for chaplains at Fort Leonard Wood
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Nov. 7, 2009) — American society may be less religious than it was a few generations ago, but its religious diversity has greatly increased. That change has dramatically impacted the Army, which must now offer religious services not only for Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants but also for a wide variety of different Christian denominations and minority faiths.

At Fort Leonard Wood, that diversity includes numerous Roman Catholic and several “collective Protestant” worship services, denominational on-post chapel services including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, several different types of evangelical worship services, and Latter-Day Saints worship, along with accommodation for off-post Seventh Day Adventist worship on Saturday. Three non-Christian faiths also have on-post chapel services, with Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist services held in various locations.

Numerous special-interest religious activities are also sponsored by the chaplain’s office, ranging from various Roman Catholic groups such as the Knights of Columbus and Catholic activities for women and youth, to a Korean-language nondenominational Bible study, a denominational Bible study for Lutherans, a “Gospel Bible study,” various Protestant youth and Sunday School groups, and traditional Army organizations such as Protestant Women of the Chapel, Protestant Men of the Chapel, and Officers Christian Fellowship.

That’s far different from what Lt. Col. John Bjarnason, Fort Leonard Wood’s family life chaplain, saw when he joined the Army in 1969.

“We have a wide range of all kinds of different choices for our trainees to go to church. When I first came into the military, we had a choice: Catholic or Protestant … actually there were three choices: drill sergeant time, Catholic time, or Protestant time, but who would ever choose drill sergeant time if they could choose Catholic time or Protestant time?” Bjarnason said. “But now soldiers, brand-new when they first arrive ... can choose a wide variety of different church . Now I’m sure that we don’t meet every single person’s needs, but we try. That is the mandate of the chaplain to provide for free exercise of religion.”

That diversity includes Islam.

While less than a half of one percent of all Fort Leonard Wood soldiers are Muslim, the post sponsors two different Islamic worship services, maintaining military discipline by keeping trainees separated from regular permanent party soldiers.

“Today is Friday, Friday is the Muslim day of worship,” Bjarnason said. “Today there are two groups of Muslims meeting and one of them is right here in this (chaplain’s office) building.”

Only a handful of soldiers — typically 10 to 20 or at most 30 — attend each of the two Muslim services. But accommodating Muslim religious practices, including such things as fasting for Ramadan, is important, he said.

“They have the same opportunity to assemble and to freely exercise their religion just like everybody else,” Bjarnason said. “They bring this up through the chain of command and usually they can work it out just fine. Often, if the chain of command is a bit hesitant, they will go to the chaplain and the chaplain will help them exercise their right.”

That chaplain won’t be a Muslim. Although Fort Leonard Wood is one of the Army’s largest installations, the Muslim community is too small for a full-time Muslim chaplain to be assigned and the Muslim worship is conducted by lay leaders in coordination with an ordained Army chaplain on Fort Leonard Wood who provides for worship of minority groups though lay leaders even though the Army doesn’t have an ordained chaplain available to actually conduct that worship.

“Every service that we do not have a chaplain for them is under the sponsorship of a chaplain and is (conducted by) a certified denominational lay leader,” Bjarnason said.

Some of the Christian chapels are in a similar position with lay leadership for the Episcopalians and Churches of Christ.

Bjarnason is himself a member of a minority faith: the Latter-Day Saints, more commonly called Mormons.

“What I chose to do was I rotated every other Sunday when I was at basic training at Fort Lewis,” Bjarnason said. “Now probably our drill sergeants would call me a church hopper, going from one to the other to the other, but that’s what I chose to do.”

Providing religious services for a wider diversity of religious faiths is an important improvement, Bjarnason said.

“I believe that providing religious opportunity to our soldiers is a good thing that has happened for our soldiers,” he said. “Every soldier can on Thursday find the (Fort Leonard Wood Guidon) newspaper and find his service and all of that is listed in the schedule.”

Fort Leonard Wood’s head chaplain, Col. Roger Heath, said handling that diversity of worship services will be easier in early 2011 when the installation’s new chapel complex is complete.

Scheduled for opening in March of that year, depending on how weather affects the construction work, the new chapel complex will move the chaplain’s offices from what used to be Partridge Elementary School on post into a facility that’s specifically designed for chaplain functions. It will also end the current need to hold two large Protestant worship services and one large Roman Catholic Mass for basic trainees in movie theaters that aren’t designed for worship.

“It will be in the center of the post,” Heath said. “We can have about 1,200 to 1,300 soldiers at one time so it will accommodate a much bigger audience than we can have right how in the smaller chapels.”

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