From Pike's Peak to the Dead Sea - CONG Chaplains visit Middle Eastern counterparts

  • Published
  • By Chaplain Andy Meverden
  • Colorado National Guard
In July, three Colorado National Guard (CONG) chaplains, Army Col. Andy Meverden, Joint Forces Headquarters, Air Force Lt. Col. Ron Prosise, 140th Fighter Wing, and Army Capt. Steve Satterfield, I69th Fires Brigade, left the Rocky Mountains to learn more about the people, language, culture and religion of their Middle East counterparts on the eastern bank of the River Jordan.

Colorado's State Partnership with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan formally began in 2004. After many exchange visits between various units, both Army and Air, a senior Jordanian military official suggested that Colorado's chaplains and Jordan's imams ("imam" is the common name for Muslim clergy) should get together to learn more about each other's religions. Thus began the CONG chaplain-imam exchange program in 2005.

Believe it or not, the high temperature in Amman that week in July was a few degrees cooler than it was in Denver. What was intense though was the interaction and warm fellowship that ensued as we dialogued and discussed topics of mutual professional interest. Jordan has the largest and most developed military chaplaincy in the Muslim world, with 268 imams, eight of whom are brigadier generals in the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF). Their senior chaplain is called "Mufti," and is the Director of Ifta'a (Moral Guidance). Like U.S. forces, Jordanian imams accompany their units that deploy in peace-keeping and humanitarian missions around the world. Their hospital unit in Afghanistan currently has two chaplains assigned for the spiritual and moral support of both hospital patients and staff members.

Learning from each other
So what do you get when you put U.S. Christian and Jordanian Muslim clergy together for a week? The answer: a lot! First, they taught us about topics relating to key issues confronting the Middle East. The Mufti gave a lecture on "Violence and Extremism in the Middle East." He defined "extremists" as "people or groups who believe that they alone are on the right path - leaving the middle and walking on the edge." This could be political, religious, environmental, etc. "Extremism is unbalanced," the Mufti said. "It's based on misinterpretation of God's sayings (the Koran, the Bible, etc.) and the cause of all the world's problems."

Another briefing focused on "The Koranic Roots of the Amman Message." The Amman Message, published in 2004, was an official statement issued by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, intended to rebuke and counter the extreme message and terrorist activities of radical Islam and al-Qaeda. It was also used to promote a moderate, tolerant message of true Islam. This message, reflected in the governance of Jordan, was championed during the 50-year reign of the late King Hussein, and continues to be the guiding principle of his son, King Abdullah II. These two topics demonstrated the moderate orientation and positive leadership role Jordan seeks to play in the Middle East and Muslim world.

These presentations and ensuing discussions provided us first-hand insight into the hearts and minds of our Jordanian partners. Follow-up conversations during the breaks and other planned cultural activities deepened the insights and relationships we came to develop.

We also had some things to share. At our first meeting, I gave a briefing on "Deployment Cycle Ministry." My presentation focused on the spiritual needs of Soldiers, Airmen and their families prior to, during, and after deployment. I also gave a short, illustrated talk on "Maharamona," the Afghan reconciliation ceremony I discovered and utilized on deployment in Afghanistan. Later in the week, Chaplain Prosise spoke on "Ministry to Wounded," based on a tour of duty at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. His topic, visual aids and enthusiastic delivery captured the hearts and minds of our Jordanian counterparts as we discussed common ministry issues and challenges. As we conversed, we discovered a number of common ministry concerns. Valuable training topics recommended for future visits include compassion fatigue, chaplain supervision, and casualty operations. Most important, we discovered that the Jordanian imams were excited to read actual biblical texts in Arabic that illustrated the points made in the briefing. By trial and error, we learned more effective ways to communicate with our Jordanian counterparts.

Guided tour of the Holy Land
The Jordanians were equally as creative and wise in their approach. In addition to formal boardroom presentations, we were taken on a guided tour of key religious sites. The first stop was Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the ministry sites of the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist. There we saw the location where Elijah was taken up to Heaven in the fiery chariot, as well as the ancient location where John baptized Jesus. The audio-guided tour took us to the very spot where archaeologists believed Jesus was baptized (in Jordan), and then to the western bank of the Jordan River directly across from Israel. Though my second visit, it was a moving experience to accompany my two other chaplains and other group members who, for the first time, walked the ground once tread by Elijah, John and Jesus (or "Isa," as is the Arabic name for Jesus).

After Bethany and the River Jordan, just a few kilometers from the Dead Sea, we drove to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses ("Musa") saw the Promised Land. Prohibited from entering because of his dishonoring disobedience (Deuteronomy 34), God allowed Moses to see from a high point on Jordan's East Bank, called Mount Nebo, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, before he died and was buried somewhere in the vicinity. A metal replica of Moses' staff stands next to the site of an ancient church in silent testimony to God's compassion and healing power (Numbers 21:9). After Nebo, we stopped in Madaba, an ancient city whose Orthodox Church floor has the oldest mosaic map of the Holy Land, and has a population that is 50/50 Muslim and Christian. (Jordan's population as a whole is 6 percent Christian).

After a sharwarma lunch (Jordanian fast food), we were taken to a "surprise location." On the outskirts of Madaba, we pulled up to a relatively new mosque. The call to noon prayer had just sounded and the imam came to greet us. When asked if we could read the Arabic script above the door, I could not tell a lie, so said "la" ("no"). The interpreter said, "This is the Jesus the Messiah Son of Mary mosque!" I doubled-checked with the Arabic-speaking U.S. Foreign Area Officer accompanying us, and he confirmed that was correct. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Muslims hold Jesus to be the greatest of prophets, but not the "Son of God," as Christians do. Back in Amman, we stopped at the King Abdullah mosque where our hosts prayed. Can you imagine the discussion that ensued after that field trip?

As the week progressed, we realized that there was much about the Middle East, Jordan and Islam that we didn't know. It also became apparent that there were some gaps in their understanding about us, the U.S. military and Christianity in the U.S. The Jordanians' view of Christianity is limited to Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Coptic branches. They have almost no understanding of Protestant beliefs and practices. Since "Protestantism" comprises 30 to 50 percent of U.S. military religious preference, we offered to help them learn more. They expressed interest in visiting a Protestant church in Colorado. I suggested a visit to Colorado in winter, so I could take them for a ride on my snowmobiles, but they balked. The Mufti in clear English said, "It is too cold!" One imam said he would like to try skiing! Perhaps we can take them to Camp Hale, Colorado's World War II training site of the 10th Mountain Division, on our way to the slopes!

Discussions revolved around the nature of God: Do Christians believe in one or three gods? We discussed the 'Triunity' of God from our Christian perspective; and using Matthew's Gospel account of Jesus' baptism at Bethany as a reference point, clarified some misconceptions. We also discussed the Muslim standard of truth-telling. "All Muslims must tell the truth," our Jordanian interpreter said, "except in three instances. One, when your wife/wives ask if you love her/them, always say 'yes,' even if you don't; two, to facilitate reconciliation between two parties; and three, to your enemy." So, being the senior member of the group, I leaned across the table and asked, "Are we your friends, allies ... or enemies?" They discussed the question among themselves and replied, "You are our friends."

Establishing relationships with partner Chaplaincies
Colorado is the only National Guard to have a state partnership in the Middle East. Other states have or are seeking to expand their partnership programs to include the chaplaincies of their partner nations. Several have asked for suggestions on how to establish this relationship. Here are my suggestions: 1) Work through your State Partnership Program. Let them know of your interest in connecting with your partner chaplaincy. 2) With SPP office concurrence, contact the Bilateral Affairs Officer (BAO) in the partner country's embassy to explore the viability and advisability of such contact. 3) Perhaps you can take advantage of a CENTCOM, AFRICOM, PACOM or SOUTHCOM event in progress to meet the chaplains in your partner country. 4) Go! Take the plunge! Prepare by reading and learning some basic language, geography and culture. Then pack up and head out with bags, passport, identification card and airline tickets in hand. 5) Be a learner. One key to successful cross-cultural interaction is to acknowledge your ignorance up front and ask your hosts to teach you about their language, culture and ministry situation. This approach will not only help disarm potential misconceptions or preconceived notions, but will enable the "outsider" (that would be us) to develop essential basic information. Some states have chaplains with previous cross-cultural ministry experience. These can be excellent resources to begin the partnership process.

For example, in the '80s I ministered in Portugal among African refugees and returnees from the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau. During that time we also enfolded young Chinese government workers being prepared to receive Macau back under Chinese government control. That experience, plus serving as senior pastor of a Metro Denver English-speaking church with Chinese, Eritrean, Korean and Russian-speaking sub-congregations, gave me an adventuresome palate and love for all God's children. I believe that previous experience was part of God preparing me to work with our partner countries, Slovenia and Jordan.

Long-term vs. short-term
One positive feature of the National Guard State Partnership Program is the stability of our personnel. Whereas active component personnel tend to rotate every two to three years, National Guard chaplains tend to live and serve in their communities and states long term. My initial contact with our Jordanian counterparts began in 2007. Since then, I have been to Jordan twice, met with Jordanian imam delegations three times, and hosted three imams in Colorado in 2010. Over that time, I have included other chaplains from the Army and Air Guard with the intent of broadening the exposure of our ministry team to our two partner countries. Not only do we participate in chaplain exchange events, but also family support exchanges, as we work closely with them in Soldier, Airman and family support. Future events are planned, to include the upcoming World Day of Religious Harmony, sponsored by Jordan, scheduled for February 2012. Family support exchanges with Jordan and Slovenia, as well as a chaplain-imam exchange focusing on chaplain professional development are also planned.

Farewell feast - Mansef and prayer
How do you gage the success of an exchange visit? One way is by the candid feedback received from the U.S. Embassy BAO back through the State Partnership Program Office. Another is by the level of dialogue and willingness of your counterparts to plan future visits. Perhaps one of the best ways to gauge the success of a visit to Jordan is by the food! On our last day, we ended shortly before noon prayers. Afterward, four huge round trays covered with rice and slivered almonds were brought in. On each tray was a sizeable cooked goat! In the middle of two trays were a goat head with the mouth upward and tongue protruding - quite different from the standard menu at Chili's or Village Inn! A tangy yogurt sauce was poured over the rice and goat meat in part for flavor, but also make it sticky and easier to eat. With right hands, we were taught to make rice balls and pop them into our mouths. Using the thin bread on the corners, we could tear off pieces of goat meat to eat along with the rice - a right tasty meal, in my estimation! As the meal progressed, different aspects of the eating customs were explained. Chaplain Prosise quickly mastered the rice-ball technique and became a hit. Without warning, the Mufti reached in and ripped out the goat tongue on our platter. He tore off a piece for me and another for Chaplain Prosise. Without hesitation, I ate my piece of goat tongue, much to the delight of our hosts. The final cultural lesson learned was that the main host had to keep eating until the last guest was finished! It is no exaggeration to say, with mixed cultural metaphors, that Chaplain Prosise "ate the Mufti under the table!"

After washing and perfuming our hands, we gathered in the Mufti's office for a gift exchange, closing prayer and farewell. Simple gifts representing our respective countries and militaries were shared, along with expressions of appreciation for the time shared, information exchanged and lessons learned. With approximately eleven imams lined up in the hall, we shook hands, hugged and exchanged triple; even quadruple culturally appropriate manly kisses (check-to-cheek style). As we worked our way down the line we heard words of farewell and blessings in Arabic and English. Escorted out front by the Mufti, we awaited our transportation back to our hotel. One final hug and we were off. Soon their Muslim Sabbath would begin.

Cultural day at "The Red Rose City"
A quick trip to ancient Petra filled our last day. There we met a man on a donkey who said he was born in a cave in Petra. After photos and some souvenir shopping, we headed back to Amman to pack and prepare for our long trip home.

Outside the city of Petra, we stopped a "Musa Springs" (Moses' Springs), where tradition claims Moses split a rock out of which water gushed. Locals claimed that if a man drank from this spring, he would get two wives. We tried hard to get our single colleague to take a swig, but he couldn't get over tourist kids wadding in the pool. Chaplain Prosise and I didn't dare take a drink. Our wives would have not approved!

Pack up, check out, and return home
Prior to heading to the airport, we meet to process our experience. Using personal notes and memories, we discussed: 1) What we came to do, 2) What actually occurred, and 3) Recommendations for future events. Our basic assessment was that the mission was successful. Some things we intended to do didn't occur, but other unplanned events and discussions more than compensated for that.

All three Colorado National Guard chaplains came back with greater understanding of the Jordanian chaplaincy program, and new relationships that we plan to maintain and develop in the future - Insha'Allah! (Lord willing!)