Lessons Learned from Iraq that Apply to Ministry Anywhere:
A Southern Baptist Chaplain in Action
By Dr. Page Brooks, Chaplain for the Louisiana National Guard, Assistant Professor of Theology and Islamic Studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Founding Co-Pastor of the Mosaic Church in New Orleans
Throughout the Bible we see where God sometimes leads individuals into the desert to teach them some powerful spiritual lessons. Whether it was the Israelites, John the Baptist, or Jesus Himself, the desert experience was always powerful in bringing to life spiritual truths.
I had my own experience in learning spiritual lessons in the desert, but this particular trip was because of my role as a military chaplain while I was deployed to Iraq in 2010. I serve as a chaplain with the Louisiana National Guard and deployed with the 1-141 Field Artillery out of New Orleans, Louisiana. We served in two locations of Iraq during the year. In the first part of our deployment we were stationed in Tallil, near the Kuwaiti border. Our soldiers performed convoy operations all over Iraq, starting from our base in Tallil. The second half of the deployment we were stationed in the International Zone, Baghdad. We provided security for areas of the International Zone and the US Embassy.
Though we went through loss of life and other difficult situations, I had wonderful deployment. I loved being with my soldiers and ministering to their needs. In the midst of the incredible ministry with the soldiers, God not only used me to touch their lives, but God used them to teach me a few lessons of my own that I would use when I returned to the States as I returned to my teaching ministry and church plant.
Lesson 1: Engaging the Lost -- The first lesson I learned early in the deployment was during the convoy operations. As a chaplain, I did not have to ride with my soldiers on the convoys, but my commander allowed me full access to our operations. To understand the danger they went through, I felt as though I needed to go through the same experiences. After being out on a few missions, I had a soldier that came up to me and said, “Wow, Chaps, you are one of the best chaplains we have ever had!” As we talked, he began to explain how many chaplains would just stay in their office and not go out with the soldiers. He respected me for placing myself in the same circumstances as them.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I become all things to all people so that I might save some.” God used this soldier to show me that as Christians, we must go to where the people are. In our post-Christian society, we know well that people are not flocking to churches. The only way we will reach them is by going to where they are. Jesus Himself went to the places of the “unchurched,” even to the disgust of the religious crowd. Returning from deployment, I am bolder in going to those places where I can meet non-believers, even if other Christians criticize me for doing so.
Lesson Two: Strengthening the Inner Man -- The next lesson I learned was not so easy. We had several hard situations in our unit as well as on the bases I covered as a chaplain. We had one officer in our brigade killed by a road-side bomb. We had another soldier in our unit who committed suicide. I counseled several soldiers concerning marriage and relationship issues. During the last part of my deployment I was one of the few chaplains providing coverage for my area, and so I received a large load of counseling issues. I now look back and realize I had caregiver fatigue and should have set stricter boundaries for my own spiritual health. The last two months of my deployment I went spiritually numb.
During those months, however, I realized what it meant for God to give me a spiritual strength that only He can give. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” literally became my theme in prayer (Philippians 4:13). A person never realizes exactly what that strength is until they have to absolutely depend upon it. I believe I was at that point because even though I had never been so emotionally and spiritually exhausted in my life, neither had I really experienced such a spiritual and emotional strength from the Lord.
Lesson 3: Entering into the Harvest -- The last lesson I learned came in the form of humility as well as blessing. I received a call from a soldier at a remote base in Eastern Baghdad. She asked me to come perform some baptisms on my last Sunday that I would be in Iraq. A civilian from Uganda had been doing some evangelism and discipleship with both the international civilians as well as the American military on this particular base. They needed a chaplain to come and perform the baptisms and offer the Lord’s Supper. Of course I was not going to refuse, but I had no idea what was going to happen in the next few weeks. Originally I was told there would be a few persons being baptized, around 10 to 15. The day I arrived, the number had risen to 57! I had several soldiers and civilians that had accepted Christ during the deployment, but due to various circumstances, these persons were not baptized. So, to be able to baptize that many my last Sunday in Iraq was quite a gift from the Lord.
In reflecting upon that last Sunday in Iraq, I was reminded of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3:7 of how God causes the growth of His kingdom, though all of us play a small part. Someone else was able to do the evangelism, I was able to do the baptism, and another person has already started discipling the new believers in Baghdad. Nevertheless, God caused all the growth and I was privileged to have but a small part of what God was doing. As I have returned to the States, I am reminded that I am but a small part of what God is doing in this world to grow His kingdom on earth.
My time in the desert was not as long and perhaps as severe as some of the biblical characters we read (at least I had air conditioning!). Nevertheless, the lessons learned in Iraq will be with me for a lifetime of ministry.