Two Anglican chaplains spent Christmas in Afghanistan, in a month when nine Canadian soldiers died.
Peter Coffin, Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Forces, and Rev. Col. John Fletcher made the trip to support other chaplains as well as the Canadian troops. The visit coincided with a particularly hard time for all the troops as they dealt with the death of nine comrades.
This was Bishop Coffin’s second trip to Afghanistan. “Padre Fletcher had been there in 2006 and I was there in 2007 for Easter, but this was our first Christmas in Afghanistan,” Bishop Coffin explained.
Three of the six chaplains in Afghanistan happened to be Anglican. Major Doug Friesen, a priest with the diocese of Ontario based at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Petawawa is senior Canadian chaplain in theatre. Captain Murray Bateman, chaplain to the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, is from the diocese of Toronto and is also based at CFB Petawawa. And lastly, Captain David Donovan, who is from the diocese of Algoma and is based at CFB Kingston, was covering for some of the other chaplains on leave. Bishop Coffin says part of his role as bishop ordinary is to be a “chaplain to the chaplains.”
Bishop Coffin described a repatriation ceremony for three soldiers killed during his time in the country as “an incredibly moving experience.” Attended by hundreds of troops, he said, “There is profound grief because this was a friend, and they gather together and give each other a hug, unashamedly support each other and then they’ll go back out.”
Helping people deal with such losses, of course, is one of the most difficult parts of the chaplains’ jobs. “As soon as there is word of a casualty, that chaplain gets up and goes,” Bishop Coffin says. “The first place you go is to the hospital and receive the wounded. There’s always a chaplain looking after the wounded. … There’s the dead, but also people who are wounded. And then there’s the unit that’s grieving, the person’s platoon or whatever, so the chaplain is there. All the chaplains are on deck, but the unit chaplain who knows them, who has been training with them before they even went, that’s the one that gets closest to them.”
The chaplains are doing well, despite the tough times and stress they have gone through, Bishop Coffin said. “I was really proud of what I saw of our chaplains, of all the troops actually,” he said. “They are always engaged in what we call a ministry of presence; in other words, they are always there. And folks are making use of them. Whether they have faith or they are people who don’t have any professed faith, they know that the padre is someone they can talk to.” Chaplains, he noted, look after everybody regardless of their their faith tradition.
Bishop Coffin said the part of the trip that moved him most was celebrating Christmas with the troops. “It’s Christmas Day, but it feels like Wednesday,” he said, but when they gathered to sing carols and celebrate the eucharist, it felt like Christmas.
“In the midst of war and deprivation and all that kind of stuff, there is some sense that, even in the midst of this, God is Emmanuel, meaning God with us,” he said. “There was one phrase that kept coming to my mind from the first chapter of John’s Gospel, ‘And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not overcome it.'”