A friend to everybody’

Published November 1, 2010

Military chaplains working in war zones such as Afghanistan often find themselves giving communion wherever the troops are.

Commander the Rev. Canon Baxter Park doesn’t consider himself a morning person. Still, he begins every day as the Formation Chaplain of the Maritime Forces (Atlantic) at 5:30 a.m. He has the same breakfast he’s had every day for the past 25 years: one glass of orange juice, one glass of skim milk, a banana and some berries. He reads the Halifax Chronicle Herald. No coffee. Then he gets into his car and makes the 20-minute drive to the office.

Sounds pretty cushy, but in fact, Park has earned his stripes the hard way. Originally a parish priest in the diocese of Western Newfoundland, Park joined the military 20 years ago at the age of 26. His atheticism helped him get through the rigours of basic training, but it was his faith that prepared him for what was to come.

In 1990, after just one year, Park was sent to the Persian Gulf, the first Anglican military chaplain to go into a conflict area since the Korean War. His ministry included the personnel on three Canadian warships. “I was running a parish on a warship,” recalls Park.

As the only chaplain, he had to minister to every faith group. “Today, more than ever,” he tells me, “a lot of what a chaplain does is to be a friend to everybody.” On a ship, this means visiting personnel where they work. “Sometimes you pitch in and help and offer people a chance to have a conversation in a place where there’s not a lot of privacy or personal space,” Park says. “A chaplain can provide that opportunity for deeper conversation.”

One of the physical challenges was going from ship to ship on a “jackstay.” Basically, he explains, two very large ships moving at a speed of 10 to 12 knots pull up alongside each other. A rope is strung between the moving ships. Park, wearing a harness with a horsecoll-like contraption for his head and sitrrups for his feet (“Even though I’m short and fat, I’m physically fit,” he assures me), would be pulleyed from one ship to the other. “It’s the navy’s version of a jip-line,” he adds, helpfully. “It’s very exciting.”

Eventually he was joined by a Roman Catholic chaplain and the two of them used the jackstay to exchange ships. In all, he was at sea for six months.

Park had a memorable four years as a chaplain in the Queen Charlotte Islands— “Haida Gwaii,” or Islands of the People. Park got to know the military families that made up a significant part of the island community. He also got to know and work with the Haida, many of whom became lifelong friends.

Then it was back to Halifax and the HMCS Saint John’s, which joined the standing naval force in the Mediterranean. That’s when Park noticed a shift in his ministry, as advances in communications began to link families on shore with their loved ones at sea.

“In the old days,” explains Park, “when the ship pulled away from the dock there was very limited interaction between sailors and their families.”

Today, thanks to email and cellphones, news of any kind—whether it’s a child’s broken arm or a sailor’s broken relationship—is relayed instantly. “We work closely with chaplains on land and can put a lot of resources towards resolving problems, including the expertise of military social workers and psychologists,” says Park. However, he adds, when a sailor needs to go home, it is often on the recommendation of the chaplain.

Although the bulk of his career has been with the navy, in 2004 he deployed with the army in Bosnia. At army headquarters in Sarajevo, he worked as the senior chaplain for an international operation, co-ordinating the work of 19 chaplains covering 17 missions across the war-torn country.

Today, Park again manages a team of 19 chaplains: six Anglican priests, three Roman Catholic priests, three Catholic laypeople, three United Church ministers, one Baptist minister and a Muslim imam. There’s also a Free Methodist minister on exchange from the United States.

“We all work together every day,” he says. “We run military chapels that provide [for] the usual pastoral and sacramental needs, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as for Muslim and aboriginal people.”

There is a sweat lodge and military chaplains work with a Mi’Kmaq elder to provide spiritual care to those who follow a traditional spiritual path. “Whether you’re a believer or non-believer, Christian, Muslim, Jew or aboriginal, male or female, we are here to demonstrate that we are people who care and who live out our faith daily by caring for the needs of others,” says Park.

He wears a second hat as the Joint Task Force Atlantic Chaplain. In a time of emergency, Park would perform as the senior chaplain for the army, navy and air force for Atlantic Canada.

Of all his experiences, it is perhaps the single year he spent at a German hospital that had the most profound impact on Park. There, he ministered to the wounded and dying soldiers coming back from Afghanistan. It was also his job to support their families.

In one particular case, the wife and mother of a brain-dead soldier arrived to say goodbye and to complete the paperwork so that the young man’s organs could be donated, as he had wished. Park took the mother in first to see her son.

“At some level, the mother expected he would respond when she spoke to him, that her voice would wake him up,” says Park. Then, the soldier’s wife read to her husband the letters that their children had written.

“I understood it as resurrection theology. On the one hand, we had this young soldier who died in a war. But even after giving his life, he was giving again so that nine or 10 people could live.”


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